Nationals vs. Marlins: Washington’s bullpen holds fort until Adam LaRoche drives in winning run in 10th


Florida’s Gaby Sanchez and Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez set their sights on a ninth-inning popup. (J Pat Carter/Associated Press)

The previous three days had seen Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen confined to the bullpen, reducing two of the Washington Nationals’ most potent weapons to spectators. They watched again for the first six innings Friday night, as tension built at Sun Life Stadium, while their teammates, flaws and all, crafted a situation worthy of their talents.

Finally given a chance, Clippard and Storen — with a game-ending cameo by Sean Burnett — helped wipe away three miserable days in Philadelphia and lift the Nationals to a heart-pounding, 3-2, 10-inning victory over the Florida Marlins before 15,325.

The Nationals’ offense struck out 17 times, matching a team record, but scraped together the game-winning run when Adam LaRoche lofted a sacrifice fly to left field to score Jayson Werth. The Nationals snapped their three-game skid, though, because the back end of their bullpen came through — one reliever with dominance, another with drama and the last one with one pitch.

Afterward, sitting in his office, the first word Manager Jim Riggleman uttered was “Wow.”

Where to start? We might as well begin before Storen’s cardiac ninth and 10th, before Werth crossed the plate, before the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan lofted Burnett’s only pitch to center fielder Jerry Hairston. We might as well begin with one of the most impossibly dominant outings that will occur on a major league mound this season.

In the seventh and eighth, Clippard kept the score tied and made LaRoche say afterward, “I mean, you never think you can take off your glove, but . . .” Clippard made the Marlins swing and miss at 11 of 22 pitches and struck out all six batters he faced. He could not recall doing something quite like this.

“Maybe in [Class] A ball or something,” Clippard said. “But, no, not in the big leagues. That was fun.”

Teammates treated his performance with a sense of awe. As reporters approached Clippard after the game, Clippard asked for a moment to remove the ice bandaged around his shoulder. “Yeah,” Rick Ankiel said, smiling. “Let Zorro take his ice off.”

“He makes it look so easy at times,” Burnett said. “If you’re a pitcher, you know it’s not that easy to get swing-and-misses at this level.”

“What can you say?” starter Jordan Zimmermann said. “Tell him I need his change-up, I don’t know.”

Once Clippard left the mound in came Storen for the ninth, the score 2-2. With two outs, Mike Stanton destroyed a ball to center field. The crowd rose and roared. Storen backpedaled off the mound toward home, eyes fixed on Hairston in center.

As Stanton rounded first, he raised his fist into the air. “There was a lot going through my head,” Storen said. Hairston kept going, kept going until his heels and shoulders were scraping the fence. He made the catch.

In the 10th, Storen put the first two runners on first and third, surrendering singles to Greg Dobbs and John Buck. Storen took a deep breath.

“You have to clear your mind and try to minimize the game,” Storen said.

Omar Infante smacked a comebacker at Storen, and he snared it for the first out. He struck out Wes Helms looking. Coghlan stood on deck, and Storen happily handed off the ball. “It comes to having a lot of trust in Burnie,” he said.

With one pitch, which Coghlan flared to shallow center, Burnett escaped.

The game-winning rally started when Werth drew a 3-2, one-out walk against left-handed reliever Mike Dunn. Laynce Nix, who had struck out in six of his last seven plate appearances, hit a double to right that actually bounced over first baseman Gaby Sanchez’s head.

LaRoche walked to the plate. He had entered the game hitting .198. After he struck out for the third time in the eighth, he asked hitting coach Rick Eckstein, “Can you go watch some video and tell me if there’s a hole in the middle of my bat?”

With the count 2-1, though, LaRoche smacked a hanging slider to the warning track in left, scoring Werth with ease.

Zimmermann did not factor in the end, but he allowed two runs in six innings. His efficiency, and dominance, peaked during a strike-throwing rampage that began at the end of the first inning. He threw strikes 22 of 23 pitches, including 19 in a row. In the second, he struck out the side in nine pitches, the first pitcher to do that since Rafael Soriano last August.

The list of contributors went on. The first name Riggleman mentioned was Todd Coffey, who didn’t even play. He had pitched all three days in Philadelphia and allowed Clippard and Storen rest.

“Just a great team effort,” Riggleman said. “That was a great effort all night. They were striking us out, and we just kept scratching and clawing.”

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