Friday night, the Washington Nationals found themselves in stunning situations they wanted to avoid, and, well, they had experience with that. They squandered three leads — one in the ninth inning, one in the 10th, and yet another in the 12th, when one more strike would have mercifully ended two bizarre days. The hottest team in baseball discarded those setbacks as easily as it had discarded the stunning resignation of their manager a day before.
If the Nationals did not fold in their 9-5, 14-inning marathon victory over the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, then when will they? By the end, interim manager John McLaren was watching from the clubhouse, their bullpen was barren and their nerves, presumably, were shot. But the day after Jim Riggleman’s surreal resignation, the Nationals somehow left with their 12th victory in 13 games, their record two games above .500.
“Baseball’s a weird thing,” said starter Jordan Zimmermann, who shut the White Sox out for seven innings. “There’s highs and lows. And I think we hit about every high and every low you could have tonight.”
When Collin Balester came into the game in the 13th inning, McLaren having been ejected four innings previous, he didn’t know who was managing his team. “I thought I was going to manage,” Ryan Zimmerman joked. The truth was, the Nationals didn’t really have a manager. Third base coach Bo Porter gave signs, and the rest of the coaches worked together in the dugout.
“That’s as much intensity as I’ve seen in the game in 24 years,” McLaren said. “It was incredible, the passion they had and the will to win.”
Brian Bixler — a reserve who was in the game only because of Jerry Hairston’s ejection and who had already hit an RBI double in the 12th — sparked the Nationals’ final extra-inning rally with pure hustle. He smacked a groundball to the left side against Matt Thornton with two outs in the top of the 14th, and when he broke his bat, he realized he had a chance.
Bixler bolted down the line and beat shortstop Alexei Ramirez’s throw by a step. He then stole second base on Thornton, followed by Ian Desmond’s chopper to shortstop. Ramirez charged and rushed his throw, which skipped over Mark Teahan’s glove.
Bixler raced home with the go-ahead run, and this time the Nationals made sure their bullpen would be able to hold the lead. An intentional walk followed by consecutive hits, including a two-run double that made Ryan Zimmerman 1 for 7, put the Nationals ahead by four.
As their front office put the finishing touches on making Davey Johnson their next manager, the Nationals won for the 17th time in 23 games. The list of heroes in a game they esstenially had to win three times was as long as the box score.
Zimmermann pitched seven sterling innings, lowering his ERA to 2.85 with the seventh consecutive start in which he allowed two runs or fewer. Roger Bernadina made an unreal catch to rob former National Adam Dunn of a two-run home run. Michael Morse’s two-homer in the eighth off Brian Bruney — another ex-National — seemed at the time to be all Washington would need. Laynce Nix hit a 10th-inning home run. Balester pitched scoreless 13th and 14th innings.
“It’s crazy,” Balester said. “This team is a fun team to be on. We never give up and it’s a lot of fun. Our chemistry together is unbelievable. We’re just having a blast together.”
McLaren watched the wild ending from the clubhouse after his ejection in the first game of what will most likely be a three-game tenure. In the eighth, Desmond rifled a throw that pulled Morse off the bag. Morse caught the ball and lunged to tag Paul Konerko, and initially Konerko was called out. After White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen met with umpires, the call was reversed.
McLaren, along with about eight other Nationals players and coaches, came out from the dugout and went ballistic. He screamed at first base umpire Mike Estabrook, waving his arms and pointing in his face, chest-to-chest.
Hairston was ejected, too, seemingly without even realizing it. After the game, Hairston was still furious.
“That was embarrassing,” Hairston said. “It was just crazy he singled me out. Our whole bench, Mac gets ejected, everybody was out there. It was bizarre. I thought it was bizarre, obviously Mac had his say, he’s the manager. We had our say, OK, and then he throws me out of the game, just singles me out out of everybody. Everybody was out there. Like I said, utmost respect for Paul Konerko. Great guy. For him to lose it, it takes a lot. Seriously I’ve played against him a long time. I get ejected and that’s just, it’s unreal. Unreal.
I’m talking to [first base coach Harold] Baines and Konerko. We’re laughing. I said, ‘Hey I didn’t know you threw out the challenge flag. I didn’t know this was football.’ I didn’t know you could reverse a call like that, you kidding me? It’s off the chain. They were laughing, I’m laughing too and he goes, ‘Oh by the way, you’re out of the game.’ Unbelievable.”
When the dust settled, Sean Burnett came in from the bullpen and retired Dunn — the former teammate whom he credits for helping him pitch more effectively to left-handed batters.
Of the three blown leads, Tyler Clippard’s was the most excruciating. Bixler had just put the Nationals ahead with his opposite-field RBI double in the 12th. The Nationals charged out to the field, hopeful to put an end to a long, strange game.
Dunn grounded out, and Alex Rios flied softly to right. At first base, Morse pumped his fist and signaled two out. A.J. Pierzynski fouled off a pair of pitches. One more strike, and it was over. Clippard fired a 94-mph fastball and Pierzynski turned on it, sending a line drive into the seats. Clippard crouched on the mound and started at the ground.
In the bottom of the ninth, Drew Storen jogged into the game, charged with converting the easiest save possible— up three runs, three outs to go. The Nationals, leading 3-0, had not given up a run 22 innings. But Storen surrendered two one-out singles, then pinch-hitter Mark Teahan walloped a three-run home run. Suddenly, Desmond’s RBI single in the ninth turned from window-dressing to necessity.
The Nationals immediately grabbed another lead. On Thursday, Nix had been an overlooked hero, driving in the winning run with a sacrifice fly minutes before Riggleman resigned. Friday, he nearly made sure no one would forget about him. He drilled a homer to right off Sergio Santos with one out in the top of the 10th, hushing the crowd and putting the Nationals up 4-3.
In the bottom of the inning, however, the Nationals found themselves unable to close it out again. Todd Coffey allowed a one-out walk to Konerko, then a double to right by Dunn that put the winning run at second. Nationals Coach Trent Jewett called for an intentional walk to load the bases and set up for a double play — a plan thwarted when Coffey uncorked a game-tying wild pitch through Wilson Ramos’s legs.
Coffey issued another intentional walk, at which point it seemed the White Sox would surely walk off with a the win. But Coffey squirmed out of the inning by striking out Brent Lillibridge and inducing a popup by Teahan. The game moved to the 10th, tied at 4.
Long before the chaotic end, the Nationals had resolved not to worry about the surreal events surrounding Riggleman’s exit. Friday afternoon, Morse had stood at his locker and considered what to make of the strange previous 24 hours. He shrugged and smiled. “I’m the worst guy to ask,” Morse said. “I just play.” He grabbed his glove out of his locker and headed to the field.
“It’s not as big as big a thing to us as you’d think it is,” Bixler said. “We’re just playing.”