In one corner of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, the locker that formerly belonged to Danny Espinosa had been vacated. Across the room, Henry Rodriguez stuffed belongings into a blue duffel bag. Jayson Werth emerged from the kitchen, walked across the room and hugged a coach. Anthony Rendon and Ian Krol, minor leaguers the day before, trundled in, suitcases rolling behind and bags slung over their shoulders.
Sweeping change in the afternoon led to numbing familiarity for most of Tuesday. After eight more innings of impotent offense and slipshod defense at Nationals Park, the Nationals made a change that mattered most. In a 3-2, walk-off victory over the New York Mets, the Nationals scored two runs in the ninth inning off closer Bobby Parnell and, for the first time all season, won a game they had trailed after six innings.
The Nationals threatened to squander Jordan Zimmermann’s latest dominance, mustering nothing for eight innings aside from Ian Desmond’s solo homer. They had allowed two unearned runs after Adam LaRoche’s throwing error in the fifth. And then, in the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman sparked a rally with a laser of a double and a miracle of a slide. Steve Lombardozzi ended it when he lofted the ninth pitch he saw to left field, deep enough to score LaRoche with the winning run.
They had, in Zimmerman’s words, finally won a game they should not have won. Relievers, especially closers, had overpowered them all season, and they were 0-21 when trailing after six innings. Tuesday night, they could rush from the dugout — led by Werth — and dogpile on Lombardozzi in the middle of the diamond, leaping up and down as one mass of happy ballplayers.
“We had a lot of those last year,” Lombardozzi said. “It’s good to get that feeling back.”
The rally constituted “a fitting end to a long day,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “A hard day.” Proximity and frequency grows a baseball team into a family. Johnson still remembers 29 years ago, the first day he had told a player to pack his things. Tuesday, he told relievers Zach Duke and Rodriguez the Nationals were letting them go, and he told Espinosa he needed to hit the disabled list. As the Nationals partied in the infield, Desmond thought about the absent trio.
“I wished they were here to celebrate with us,” Desmond said. “By no means did we win that game because they weren’t here.”
The overhaul left them with a 25-man roster that included seven players who began the year in the minor leagues. It also gave them their leader back in Werth, who went 1 for 4 with a single and a strikeout in his first game since May 2.
“He’s a breath of fresh air coming in here,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s a different place when he’s not around.”
The Nationals (29-29) pulled back to .500 and at least temporarily saved themselves the ignominy of dropping to third place behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They will have prettier wins. None may feel like such a relief.
“We’re going to get better, and we’re going to continue to build,” Werth said. “With that said, there is a sense of urgency. We’ve been playing two months. It’s time to go. We need to pick it up, and we need to play like the type of team that we are.”
The Nationals agreed the nature of Tuesday’s victory may provide a necessary catalyst. They entered the ninth trailing 2-1, having managed only four hits in eight innings, dominated for seven by Jeremy Hefner, a right-hander who had entered with a 4.74 ERA.
Zimmerman began the rally when he crushed a line drive to center field off Parnell. It was an obvious double, except for the fact that Rick Ankiel’s left arm had come back to center field at Nationals Park. Zimmerman worried about Ankiel’s cannon “100 percent,” he said. “But you got to go for it right there. A double is so much bigger than a single in that situation.”
Ankiel fielded Zimmerman’s rocket off the wall, turned and fired the ball to second. The ball landed in Omar Quintanilla’s glove as Zimmerman dove into second. He swerved inside the bag, stretching his fingertip to the base before Quintanilla’s tag hit his chest.
After a wild pitch pushed Zimmerman to third, LaRoche smacked a single to right, atoning for an earlier error that led to both of the Mets’ runs. Zimmerman scored to tie. Desmond ripped a double to the gap, which put men on second and third. Parnell intentionally walked Roger Bernadina, bringing Lombardozzi to the plate.
Earlier Tuesday, Johnson had intimated Rendon would be taking over for Espinosa as the everyday second baseman. In the moment, Lombardozzi had a chance to win it.
“Those are the situations you dream of,” Lombardozzi said.
He whiffed at a 97-mph fastball to fall behind, 1-2. He fouled off one pitch, took ball two, and then lashed three more foul. He felt comfortable as he saw each pitch. He told himself, “He has to come to me. He’s the one in trouble.”
Finally, Lombardozzi flicked a 97-mph fastball to left. Mike Baxter charged at first, then drifted back. Even LaRoche could score, sliding in with the winner. His teammates rushed to the field and engulfed him.
“I was out of breath,” Lombardozzi said. “I think I blacked out a little bit there.”
Back in the clubhouse, house music pumped from a new boom box, an addition courtesy of Werth. They had lost three of their teammates earlier, a casualty of an underachieving start. It is, as Werth said, time to go, and perhaps Tuesday night was a spark. “Maybe,” Werth said, “this is something we were looking for.”