“This is how it’s supposed to be,” Espinosa said. “When you’re in first place, you should be playing in front of a sold-out crowd. It should be loud. It should be a great atmosphere. This is what you dream of as a kid to play in front of.”
A night that began with sloppy play delivered the type of baseball thrills Washington has waited generations for. The victory nudged the Nationals’ lead in the National League East to three games as the Atlanta Braves lost. Players in the dugout embraced in group hugs. Espinosa took a curtain call. LaRoche hugged his 9-year-old son, Drake. The fever of a pennant race, perhaps like never before, enveloped Nationals Park.
Five tenured Nationals players said the crowd, 33,449 strong, grew louder in the eighth inning than they had ever heard it, with the possible exception of Stephen Strasburg’s debut in 2010. “People stayed, too,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who’s seen more games here than anyone. “In the past, they would have left.”
“Awesome,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who made his Nationals debut. “That was awesome.”
The Nationals’ rollicking rally from a 6-4 deficit made the night crackle. It built slowly at first. LaRoche rolled a groundball to first base, but he reached when reliever Mike Dunn, covering first, dropped the ball. Jayson Werth followed with a walk. Then Suzuki chased two high fastballs and struck out.
The park deflated, then perked up as Steve Lombardozzi walked to the plate. Earlier, his booting of a groundball led to the Marlins’ sixth run, and their third unearned run of the game. Now, he ripped a single back up the middle.
LaRoche lumbered around third as center fielder Gorkys Hernandez’s throw sailed in from center. He ignored Tyler Moore’s suggestion to slide and tried to step around catcher John Buck’s foot. Even super-slow-motion replays could not conclusively show whether LaRoche’s toe clipped the plate, but he was called safe and the Nats had cut the lead to one.
“I didn’t know if I did,” LaRoche said. “Yeah, there was a little miscommunication there. I should’ve slid. But it worked out.”
With the trying run on second, Moore ripped a 1-2 fastball into right field. Werth slid home. The game was tied at 6. The roar built and built.