After all that happened Wednesday night, Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche walked up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with a chance to cover up the blemishes. The Nationals were in another all too familiar position early this season: a deficit late in the game. They entered the half-inning trailing the Los Angeles Angels by three runs, staring down a sweep at the end of three mostly lackluster games.
But when LaRoche came to the plate to face right-hander Fernando Salas, the situation was already more manageable. The batter before him, Jayson Werth, was given permission by Manager Matt Williams to break convention and swing at a 3-0 pitch from struggling closer Ernesto Frieri, and he smashed a game-tying, two-run double.
LaRoche saw all he need from Salas on the first pitch, which he laced the other way to left field for a 5-4, walk-off win, the Nationals’ seventh comeback victory in 22 games. They don’t want to make a habit of it. But for now, they rejoiced in another hard-fought rally.
“It’s just something we’re going through right now, where we’re getting down early in games and finding ourselves two or three runs behind,” LaRoche said. “The starters will get that figured out and get that ironed out — those first couple innings — shortly, and then we won’t be behind the eight ball.”
Wednesday’s deficit wasn’t exactly starter Gio Gonzalez’s fault. He had retired 11 straight batters before he surrendered a walk to Mike Trout and then a double to Albert Pujols that tied the score at 1 in the sixth inning. His pitch count sat at only 83, but Gonzalez’s left shoulder felt tight in cool and windy conditions, so Williams took him out of the game.
After the game, Williams said he didn’t consider the tightness an injury. Gonzalez said he felt fine and that he would make his next start.
“Ordinarily I wouldn’t take him out of the game there,” Williams said. “But we want to make sure he’s okay for our future, too.”
Gonzalez’s early exit was one of a handful of the game’s quirks. Three Nationals players tried bunting for base hits against Angels starter Jered Weaver, including Bryce Harper with two strikes and a runner at first base with no outs in a one-run game. The Nationals mustered only one run against Weaver, scored by Danny Espinosa in the second inning after he reached on a bunt single, stole second, took third on a groundout and scored on an RBI single by Gonzalez.
After Gonzalez left the game, Williams turned to rookie reliever Aaron Barrett for his second appearance in as many days.
Barrett got a quick groundout in the sixth from Howie Kendrick but then allowed a run-scoring single to Erick Aybar. Barrett returned to the mound the next inning. And even after Barrett allowed a run on a double and a wild pitch to make the score 3-1, then walked a batter with two outs, Williams still had him face baseball’s best player, Trout, with a high pitch count. Barrett got Trout to hit into an inning-ending popout but walked off the mound after throwing 43 pitches in two days.
Then came the ninth inning. With one out and a runner at second, Angels pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez hit a liner to LaRoche. He caught the ball but dropped it while transferring to his throwing hand; he wanted to attempt a double play. Umpires are strictly enforcing the transfer rule this season, which calls for clean possession in the throwing hand. LaRoche was charged with an error. Ibanez eventually scored on a Trout single to give the Angels a 4-1 lead.
But Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton began the bottom of the ninth inning against Frieri with what Werth called the “spark that we needed.” Lobaton smashed his first home run as a National, a shot to right field that cut the deficit to 4-2. Denard Span then singled up the middle, and Anthony Rendon drew a walk. After Frieri fell behind 3-0 to Werth, Williams let his veteran hitter swing at the next pitch.
“I trust him that if he’s going to miss on a swing that it’s going to be hit hard to his pull side,” Williams said. “And if it’s not a pitch he can do it with, he’s not going to swing at it.”
Frieri left a fastball over the middle, and Werth drilled it to left field. The ball caromed off the fence in foul territory, allowing Span and Rendon to score and Werth to slide safely into second base. Werth remembered the words of Charlie Manuel, his former manager with the Philadelphia Phillies: “Aim for the foul pole. I was just aiming for the foul pole. It worked out.”
It may not have been pretty, but the Nationals could at least celebrate a victory instead of regret a sweep.
“Our ability to come back is great,” Werth said. “Early on in April especially, you put these come-from-behind wins, you put them in your pocket and you put them in the bank. It’s something you can build on. As the season goes on, you got those under your belt. This is good. We may not be playing our best ball at times, but I like the way we’re playing.”