After everything that happened Friday night in Atlanta – after the frightening exit of Stephen Strasburg, the gleeful dominance of Craig Stammen and the unreal escape of Tyler Clippard – another bit of intrigue came from nowhere.
We’ll get to Stammen’s night, Clippard’s crazy inning, Denard Span’s triples and Kurt Suzuki’s dinged shoulder. First, chew on this: Top prospect Anthony Rendon, according to The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, received a promotion from Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Syracuse.
The Nationals’ victory in Atlanta was a huge moment for their season, but Rendon’s step up may have a larger long-range effect of the year. Class AAA is not a place top prospects stay long; it is finishing school.
It will be fascinating to see how much second base Rendon plays at Syracuse. At Harrisburg, he played once or twice a week, but the position has been a concern all season as Danny Espinosa struggles through injuries. Tonight, Espinosa went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts, settling his triple slash line at .164/.195/.283. He has struck out 45 times in 152 at-bats. He does not have an extra-base hit in his last 51 plate appearances.
He has played all year with a tear in his left rotator cuff and for the past six weeks with a bone chip in his right wrist. It is fair to ask what good it is doing the Nationals or Espinosa to continue playing every day in his current state. He is a good player, but he is clearly compromised.
The second base situation will play itself out, but for tonight (or Saturday morning), it’s worth looking back at what is easily the best win of the Nationals’ season. They lost their ace after two innings and still beat their foremost divisional rival. No one had more to do with it than Stammen, a unique phylum of pitcher: the dominant long reliever.
“Craig, to me, is hands-down the best I’ve seen,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I always tell him, ‘Sheesh, whatever happened? You used to start? What happened?’ But that’s for another day, I guess.”
Friday night, Stammen had a hunch he would be needed. Strasburg had told him his oblique had been nagging him in recent starts. Bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo also told him he should be ready. When he jogged in from right field, Stammen had no time to be nervous.
“It’s like showing up for your tee time two minutes before it and going out there and having fun,” Stammen said. “It’s probably better that way. I’ve ran to the tee box with my shoes untied and hit my first drive.”
Stammen felt great from the start. He stuck out Chris Johnson, the first hitter he faced, swinging at a slider in the dirt. He usually trades off his sinker, but tonight he felt his slider working best. He hadn’t gotten the feel for it in his last three or four outings. But now he could pair it with his sinker.
“I was really enjoying myself,” Stammen said. “Because it was early in the game, we were winning, I felt like I was a starter again. I was having fun. I was going to get to hit, I knew, so things were in my favor.”
He had no reason to stop enjoying himself. He pitched four innings and retired all 12 hitters he faced, striking out four of them, and he threw 49 pitches.
Stammen has opened up new opportunities for himself the way he has pitched this season – he has a 2.60 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. He is not thinking too hard about what may come next, whether it’s a role pitching later in games or taking Strasburg’s spot in the rotation if need be.
“I’ll be here tomorrow,” Stammen said. “I’ll have my cleats on. If it goes 20 innings, I’m sure I could flip something up there.”
Stammen handed off to Clippard with a two-run lead. Clippard has performed his share of escape acts during his Nationals tenure, and Friday may have been his wildest. He allowed a run and loaded the bases with one out when he hit consecutive batters. Clippard then struck out Dan Uggla on a 93-mph fastball down the middle and whiffed Johnson with a changeup in the dirt.
“A little eventful, but I guess you guys expect that when Clip goes out there, right?” Suzuki said. “He finds a way to get it done.”
The ninth included more drama, and not just the warning track line drive Freddie Freeman hit. B.J. Upton foul-tipped one of Rafael Soriano’s fastball off of Suzuki’s right shoulder, under his chest protector. Suzuki awkwardly crumpled to the dirt behind the plate.
“My arm went dead,” Suzuki said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, [shoot].’ ”
After trainers tended to him, Suzuki popped up and threw a couple warm-up tosses. The feeling came back in his arm. He finished the game, and afterward he was confident he would play Saturday.
“If I couldn’t throw, then I’d be scared,” Suzuki said. “It might be a little sore tomorrow, but get the blood flowing and it’ll be fine.”
Two outs later, Soriano was ripping the jersey out of his pants. The Nationals could celebrate because they scored just enough runs on the strength of Denard Span. He scored two runs and became the first National since 2008 (Cristian Guzman) to hit multiple triples in a game. He leads the NL with five on the year.
Standing on the on-deck circle late in the game, Span heard a fan yell, “I’ve never seen a game with two triples before!”
Span turned and informed the fan, “I’ve had three before.” Indeed, back in 2010 with the Twins, Span hit three triples in the same game.
Come back and see what happens tomorrow.