The banged-up Washington Nationals were four outs away Wednesday afternoon from losing a three-game series to the New York Mets and watching their grip on the National League East lead slip to a single game. Steady third baseman Yunel Escobar had joined their long list of injured. Starter Jordan Zimmermann had a solid outing, but the offensively challenged New York Mets had done enough to take a lead. The Nationals had 17 base runners but only one run.
An unsettling feeling was building when Michael A. Taylor stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning. Ian Desmond stood at third base and Matt den Dekker at second after advancing on a wild pitch. But then Taylor smacked a 96-mph fastball from Mets reliever Bobby Parnell into left field to tie the game, and Danny Espinosa followed with a double down the left field line to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead they would hold on to and a brighter turn in their narrative.
Nationals Park erupted with life. Desmond waved his towel from the dugout railing while his teammates threw their fists in the air, the concerns about their many injuries and tight division race pushed aside again.
“I can only control my at-bats,” Taylor said. “I just try to go up there to do whatever I can to help the team.”
Three days ago, the Nationals had a two-game lead in their division and were presented a challenge: a visit from their next-closest NL East opponent and their best three starters. After a split of the first two games, Wednesday’s eighth-inning comeback left the Nationals three games up in the division.
“We weren’t sitting around thinking, ‘Oh no, here we go,’ ” said Nationals closer Drew Storen, who notched his 29th save of the season by striking out the side in the ninth. “We just went out and grinded and really played our game. It didn’t have to be pretty. That’s big for us. If we can pull two out of the series against those starters, it says a lot about our team.”
Said Zimmermann: “That was huge. Big for us. Lose two to these guys, and it’s a little different clubhouse right now.”
As has often been the case this season, injury concerns accompanied the result. In the second inning, Escobar pulled himself out of the game after hurting his left hand or wrist while fouling off a curveball from Mets starter Noah Syndergaard. Initial X-rays were negative, but Escobar was sent for further tests. He was replaced at third by Espinosa, who has played five positions this season.
Entering Wednesday’s game, Zimmermann had a 2.91 ERA in 21 career starts against the Mets. And through three innings, he needed just 33 pitches.
But in the fourth, he gave up singles to Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy, and with two outs, .164-hitting Kirk Nieuwenhuis doubled to left field, driving in two. The Mets took a 3-0 lead when the next batter, Kevin Plawecki, poked a low slider into left field.
“Jordan did a good job of keeping us in the game,” den Dekker said.
“It could have gotten out of control there. Instead, he went seven strong and kept us in the game. That was huge for us.”
The Nationals scored in the fourth on Taylor’s RBI single but struggled to push runs across against Syndergaard, who walked five batters and twice loaded the bases but surrendered just the one run in five innings.
Desmond and den Dekker sparked the Nationals’ eighth-inning rally. With one out, Desmond drew his second walk of the game and den Dekker singled to center field. Pinch hitter Tyler Moore lined out hard to left field, and Parnell bounced a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to move to second base. Mets Manager Terry Collins stuck with his setup man instead of all-star closer Jeurys Familia.
“I should’ve had Jeurys ready,” Collins said. “That’s on me.”
Then came Taylor’s game-changing hit and Espinosa’s winning double. While Taylor’s defense has been stellar, the rookie’s hitting has been inconsistent. He was zero for his previous 23 entering Wednesday’s game yet he has still managed to be productive in big spots, hitting a team-best .389 with runners in scoring position.
“Just try to step out of the box and take my time a little more than I probably would normally,” he said.
Two pitches later, Espinosa delivered the final blow in a three-run comeback that kept the Nationals afloat.
“We trust everybody that’s on this team,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any panic there. Anyone on this team can get the job done. I think we’re all right and just moved to the next guy and keep on grinding.”