Desmond launched J.J. Hoover’s curveball into the upper deck above left field, the first step to salvaging the Nationals’ 7-6, 11-inning triumph over the Cincinnati Reds. The victory still had not been decided — on Saturday, as new closer Rafael Soriano blew his first save, nothing came easy.
Two batters later, catcher Wilson Ramos stood only a few yards from the spot where, last May, he bent over to pick up a passed ball and his doubt blanketed his career. Saturday, he crushed his second home run of the afternoon, a blast to dead center field. He hopped in the batter’s box and took 25 seconds to circle the bases. “I know,” he said. “I got it.”
Only after Craig Stammen secured the win in the bottom of the 11th, allowing one run in the process, could the Nationals line up, shake hands and officially put the 15-0 trouncing they absorbed Friday night behind them. The Nationals had felt the numbness from a drubbing. Now, they wouldn’t have to chase that with the sting of a collapse. Maybe it seems silly to think of a result during April’s first week as a tone-setter for the season. Maybe not.
“I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we would have lost,” Desmond said.
“I don’t even want to think about that,” Jayson Werth said.
There was a lot to swallow, if first you could catch your breath.
Where to start? The Nationals built a 5-1 lead lead on home runs from Bryce Harper, Ramos and Werth. Starter Ross Detwiler allowed no earned runs in six innings — take away the six earned runs Dan Haren allowed Friday night, and the Nationals’ rotation has a 0.36 ERA after one trip through.
After Detwiler made it through the fifth inning, having allowed at least one base runner every inning, Manager Davey Johnson turned to pitching coach Steve McCatty, mindful of the cozy dimensions and the mashers in the other dugout. “I need Det to give me six,” he said. “Because I need Stammen for the end. Strange things happen here.”
After Tyler Clippard dominated the scoreless seventh inning, the Nationals carried a four-run lead into the eighth inning, the kind of edge their bullpen — reconstituted to avoid the devastating finish from Game 5 of the National League Division Series — was built to protect.
“We had control of the game,” Werth said. “And then all of a sudden we didn’t.”
Drew Storen took over with the Nationals leading, 5-1. He allowed two runs, the Reds slowly bleeding him with three hits. Brandon Phillips doubled. Todd Frazier poked an RBI single through the right side. A pop out gave the Reds two outs. Devin Mesoraco ripped a bullet to the left side, right at Desmond. The ball skipped through his legs, his second error of the day and fourth of the season.
“I don’t really know why that happened,” Desmond said. “I’m doing the same things I was last year. Nobody likes to make errors. I can’t equate it to anything, but it’s brutal. Making an error is brutal.”
This one allowed another run to score. The Nationals handed a two-run lead in the ninth inning to Rafael Soriano, the man signed for $28 million this winter to replace Storen as the Nationals’ closer. Shin-Soo Choo greeted him with a leadoff homer, crushed to right field. With one out, Joey Votto pounded a triple high off the left field fence. On the next pitch, Soriano yanked a slider that bounded past Ramos and skipped to the wall. Votto slid home to tie the game.
“Bad game,” said Soriano, who belied his reputation for dodging reporters after blown saves. “I’ll come back tomorrow. I feel happy because the team won.”
Stammen survived the 10th only after Denard Span, with a man on second and one out, chased down Mesoraco’s drive to the warning track and caught it at the fence. Desmond led off the 11th. He took two balls, fouled off a pair of fastballs.
“I’m not going up there thinking about the errors,” Desmond said. “I’m trying to focus on my at-bat and get a good quality at-bat. I think in the past, I would have let that carry over for days and days.”
Hoover came back with a curveball. Desmond hammered. The crowd gasped, and the ball landed 439 feet away from home plate.
With one out, Ramos stepped to the plate. Earlier in the day, Johnson had joked with him to let the bat boy scoop up any passed balls — on May 12 last year, he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee chasing one down. Ramos had told teammates, “This is the ballpark where I got hurt.”
“I’m excited to be back here again,” Ramos said. “I’m not thinking about it. I know I got hurt here, but I forget about that.”
He had already drilled one homer when he came up in the 11th, looking for a fastball from Hoover. When he got it, he did not miss. With his new stance, more crouched than before, he clobbered the ball some 430 feet to dead center.
Stammen remained the Nationals’ best option in the 11th. He walked Votto with two outs on a pitch many Nationals thought was strike three. “But he’s the MVP,” Stammen said. “And I’m not.”
Phillips kept the game alive with an RBI double. Suddenly, the tying run had reached scoring position. Jay Bruce walked to the plate. Stammen started him with a sinker for strike one, then decided he would get beat only on his best pitch. “I was going to throw curveballs until I died,” Stammen said. “And hopefully, I got him out somehow.”
Bruce swung and missed at one curve. He foul- tipped the next. Ramos squeezed it in his mitt. On the mound, Stammen pumped his fist as teammates flowed to the mound. Stammen grew up in tiny, nearby North Star, Ohio. As he shook hands, he could hear his 20 family members from the crowd.
“They were the only ones cheering,” Stammen said.