The ball arrived at home plate at the same time as Omar Infante, and for a few crucial seconds in the top of the 11th inning they stopped playing baseball at Nationals Park. Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos held the ball. Infante, the Florida Marlins’ base runner, lay flat on his stomach. All of Friday night’s twists and turns would be decided by an odd question: Could Ramos touch Infante before Infante touched the plate? They played tag.
Infante won. With an incredible, contortionist’s slide, he scored the game-winning run and sent the Nationals to their second straight extra-innings loss, a heartbreaking 6-5 defeat to the Marlins. The Nationals, after erasing an early three-run deficit and a one-run hole in the eighth, nearly walked away with a win. They left the bases loaded in the ninth and then missed a walk-off homer by inches in the 10th.
Afterward, the Nationals’ clubhouse was silent. But they had come so close to winning in so many ways, they looked past the sting and culled progress from their two painful losses.
“We’ve been playing great baseball,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who will not play Saturday after straining his quadriceps muscle. “We’re just coming into our own right now. We’re believing in ourselves.”
Said Manager Jim Riggleman: “I hate to lose that game. I know they’re agonizing over it. But that was good baseball.”
In the 11th, the Nationals turned to rookie Brian Broderick, a Rule 5 pick who had not pitched since May 8 and had never pitched in a tie game or with a lead. Infante singled with one out. Gregg Dobbs followed with a double down the right field line.
Infante dashed around the bases as Jayson Werth scooped the ball out of the corner. He fired a throw to second baseman Jerry Hairston as the Marlins’ third base coach windmilled Infante home. Hairston threw home to Ramos. He grabbed the ball and slapped his glove on the dirt, on the corner of home plate.
“Ramos did what you’re taught,” Hairston said. “Go right to the front of the plate.”
Infante slid headfirst and, as he hit the dirt, he saw Ramos’s glove with the ball inside. “I was thinking I’m out,” he said.
Infante pulled back his left hand, a move fit for a yoga studio. Ramos stabbed at him with his mitt. Infante stretched his left hand over and around Ramos’s glove. His fingertips scraped the back point of home just before Ramos could bring his glove back to the dirt. Safe.
“I see on ESPN guys do that play,” Infante said. “It was my only chance.”
Riggleman came out to argue, or maybe to take a breath and make sense of what he had witnessed.
“He was safe,” Riggleman said. “I knew.”
Said Desmond: “From Werth picking the ball up, to the relay, to the tag, we executed so well that it was almost too fast. Ramos caught the ball, and he wasn’t even there yet.”
So much had to happen to set up Infante’s slide. Drew Storen retired all six batters he faced in the ninth and 10th, lowering his ERA to 0.40 and extending his scoreless innings streak to 20. The Marlins hit four home runs, including Logan Morrison’s go-ahead blast in the eighth off Tyler Clippard. Laynce Nix tied the game in the bottom of the inning with a double, which came four innings after he crushed a home to the upper deck in right field.
The most excruciating moment, perhaps, came in the 10th. With two outs and the bases empty, Michael Morse crushed a pitch deep to center. He dropped his bat and lifted his right index finger in the air. “I thought,” he said. “it was gone.” But he watched the ball bound off the top of the center field fence, settled for a double and was stranded at second.
Until the wild end, Roger Bernadina’s catch overshadowed anything else. With two outs and two on in the fifth, Mike Stanton crushed a line drive to center field. Bernadina, who also went 3 for 5 with a walk and a two-run, turned to his right and sprinted. He did not think he would catch the ball.
He bolted back, with time for maybe a dozen steps. “The only thing I could do is dive,” Bernadina said. He soared, his body parallel to the ground. He snared the ball with the tip of his glove. As he crashed to the turf, white poked from the top of his black glove. The disbelieving crowd gasped, unsure how he had made that play.
“I don’t know, either,” Bernadina said.
The catch ultimately served as cold consolation. In the Nationals’ clubhouse afterward, murmurs were the only sounds. Danny Espinosa grabbed a bat out of his locker and walked toward the exit. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein walked past him and asked, “You going to hit?”
Espinosa nodded. Eckstein, in street clothes, followed him to the batting cage. Midnight approached. Tomorrow, the next game, was awfully close.