Espinosa led off the 10th with a single to center, and he moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, which enticed the Marlins to pitch around Matt Stairs and bring Ian Desmond to the plate. Desmond, at the time, was 6 for his last 9. A single would probably score Espinosa, and if Desmond failed, then Werth stood on deck.
Espinosa risked all of that for something better: He bolted to steal third.
Safe, and the Nationals would have the go-ahead run at third with one out, able to score in so many ways. Out, and a 43-year-old youth hockey coach would need to run 270 feet to score the decisive run.
Marlins catcher John Buck fired the ball. Wes Helms slapped down the tag on Espinosa’s calf: Out. Desmond flied to right, and Werth walked back to the dugout.
Espinosa had decided to run himself, not because of any sign from the dugout. The Nationals would have surely been in better position to score the winning run with a man on third and less than two outs. But running into the second out and taking a runner out of scoring position was quite clearly not worth the risk.
“He thought he saw something,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s on his own. Even though it might be a breaking ball, the pitcher was pretty quick to the plate. It’s one you learn from.”
In the end, the mistake did not prevent the Nationals from winning. The Nationals bullpen will receive much of the credit last night, and rightfully so. Tyler Clippard entered in the sixth with no outs and two men in scoring position. “If we need a strikeout,” Riggleman said, “he’s the guy.” Clippard got one groundout and struck out the next two, holding the the Marlins to one run and keeping the score tied.
Clippard also pitched the seventh, but he got an assist that may have been a little overlooked. Hanley Ramirez singled with out. With Logan Morrison batting and two outs Riggleman ordered a pitch out for reasons that remain in the Washington dugout – “I can’t give away my secrets,” Riggleman said.
“It changed the complexion of the game,” shortstop Alex Cora said. “It’s a tough play. The runner is right there. You’re supposed to expect a low throw, but you really don’t. You expect him to put it right on the money. It happened, and he made a good play.”
Once Desmond made the play, the relievers kept rolling. Drew Storen dominated the eighth and ninth, spotting his fastball while touching 97 miles per hour and mixing in a slider that, because he throws it less now than last season, has become harder for batters to pick up. He froze Mike Stanton with two in a row to end the ninth.
Todd Coffey threw a 1-2-3 10th, erasing his uneven performance Wednesday, which ended with him tossing his glove following an ejection. “You can go out and have a horrible night,” Coffey said. “But guess what? You got the next night.” Sean Burnett continued his run of scoreless innings to slam the door in the 11th.
Storen described the bullpen as “a brotherhood,” and Coffey agreed about the relievers rubbing off on one another. “Pitching,” he said, “is contagious.”
FROM THE POST
Bryce Harper went 2 for 4 in his minor league debut, which received considerably less fanfare than Stephen Strasburg last season, Dave Sheinin writes.
Adam LaRoche’s game-winning home run gave the Nationals a 5-3 victory to salvage the series and, maybe, help fans get over Adam Dunn.
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 8, Buffalo 5: Yunesky Maya allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings on eight hits and two walks, striking out two. Seth Bynum went 2 for 4 with a double, a home run and five RBIs. Cole Kimball retired all four batters he faced and struck out one. Collin Balester allowed two hits in 1 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out two.
Harrisburg 5, Bowie 0: Henry Rodriguez started his rehab assignment by retiring all six batters he faced, striking out three. Starter Brad Meyers struck out nine in five scorless innings, allowing four hits and walking none. Tyler Moore went 2 for 4 with two RBIs.
Hagerstown 3, Rome 2: Randolph Oduber went 1 for 3 with a walk. Cameron Selik struck out four in five scoreless innings, allowing four hits and no walks.