ATLANTA — Turning points become so in retrospect, when hindsight can connect cause to effect. Pointing to one game in April as the turning point of a 162-game, six month baseball season — particularly a few moments after that game has finished — is a risky venture.
But whatever happens the rest of the way, the comeback the Washington Nationals staged Tuesday night, capped by a three-run home run by Dan Uggla in the top of the ninth, will feature prominently in the narrative of this season. Down eight runs in the second inning, the Nationals fought off injuries, errors, and a month’s worth of frustration to beat the Braves, 13-12, on a deep drive to left by a former Braves second baseman whose career was once left for dead.
“That’s definitely the type of game that can change the spirits of a ballclub,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span of the team’s largest comeback since moving to D.C. in 2005. “It’s a game that can change things. I’m not saying it will, but we needed something like this.”
The Nationals had lost six games in a row and were two outs away from losing a seventh. That would have been their longest losing streak since 2009. Errors were piling up. Hits were not. Injuries have poked holes in Washington’s roster since spring training, and a sprained thumb for ace Max Scherzer forced 23-year-old rookie A.J. Cole into a spot start for his major league debut. He lasted two innings, giving up nine hits and nine runs, four earned.
By the top of the ninth, the Nationals had rallied but still trailed, 12-10. Ryan Zimmerman opened the inning by striking out. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton singled. Left-handed hitting Danny Espinosa walked. That brought Uggla to the plate, greeted by the boos of the Turner Field crowd that cheered him for three-plus seasons.
Midway through last season, the Braves gave up on Uggla. He could barely hit and had become a shadow of what he once was — one of the best power-hitting second basemen of all time. The Nationals invited him to spring training. Injuries created a roster spot. Atlanta is paying him more this season (nearly $12.7 million) than any player on their rebuilding roster. He came to the plate as the go-ahead run, but it had been more than a year since his last home run.
“That was pretty much kind of all I was thinking about,” Uggla said. “Just chomping at the bit to get a chance, to get an opportunity to do something like that.”
Span was heading out on deck when Uggla crossed home plate. As the Nationals dugout celebrated, Span did not say anything to him. He just looked at him.
“That fired me up, to be honest with you,” Span said. “. . . I just looked straight in his eyes. You guys can’t write that any better. A guy that’s been through a lot the past few years. Just good for him.”
Though the 10-year veteran only earned his roster spot in spring training and is not an everyday player, Uggla slid into a prominent clubhouse role, an even-keeled guy with a hug for everyone. He got the start Tuesday at second base, where Espinosa might normally have played if it weren’t for the hand injury Yunel Escobar suffered Monday. Uggla went 3 for 5 with five RBI. He tripled for the second straight day.
The struggles of right-handed starter Cole necessitated the comeback. His error — a missed flip from Ryan Zimmerman as Cole tried to cover first base for what would have been the third out of the second inning — led to five unearned runs. After he departed, the Nationals began to chip away.
Down 9-1 by the top of the third, the Nationals got a run back on a sacrifice fly from Jayson Werth. They scored four more in the fifth. Span doubled, Ian Desmond reached on an error, and Werth hit another sacrifice fly. Zimmerman singled, and Lobaton hit a three-run homer, his first of the year. Span homered in the sixth, but the Braves got one back against Tanner Roark in the bottom of that inning
In the seventh, Uggla’s triple scored Bryce Harper and Lobaton, both of whom had walked. Reed Johnson doubled home Uggla to cut it to 11-10. But the Braves scored off Blake Treinen in the seventh for a two-run lead.
Then came the ninth, and Uggla’s homer. Drew Storen converted his fifth save. Uggla got showered in chocolate sauce by Scherzer.
“These are some crazy dudes in here,” Uggla said. “They get excited and they love to show it.”
Instability in an oft-shuffled bullpen pushed Roark into a high-leverage, late-inning role. No longer working enough to build a starter’s stamina, he could not fill in Tuesday when it was announced Scherzer would miss his start.
He ended up doing so anyway, relieving Cole in the third and pitching three-plus innings in which he allowed two runs. In order to call up Cole without moving Scherzer to the disabled list, Washington optioned right-hander Rafael Martin to Class AAA Syracuse. With an extra starter on the active roster, the Nationals were one bullpen arm short. Roark, Matt Thornton, Treinen, and Storen combined to allow three runs in seven innings.
“It’s been a rough week for us,” Span said. “Going down eight runs in the beginning of the game was even rougher. We were kind of in shock looking at each other. We just kept battling.”
One game does not become a turning point until it leads to more wins. The Nationals are still injured and still 8-13. But for the first time in a long time, the smoke machine filled the clubhouse with fog, the speakers blasted music, and the Nationals won.