Playoff baseball, dressed in August disguise, arrived in D.C. for the first time in decades at 12:28 a.m. Tuesday in the bottom of the 13th inning.
The Nats beat Atlanta, 5-4, and the few thousand people still staying, standing and cheering, got a first-hand feeling — a chill — of what October baseball is really like. Veterans freeze in the clutch, potential walk-off homers — three of them for the Nats — die at the top of outfield fences in the eighth, 10th and 11th innings. And, finally, in the end, glorious happenstance rules.
If this is an October preamble, then bring us much, much more. After a 58-minute rain delay, there was a 4-hour 27-minute long contest with a dozen pivot points. It exhausted so many relief pitchers that, long after midnight, Nats starter Edwin Jackson — who had struck out 11 Mets just 50 hours before — was warming up in the bullpen. It was his “throw day.” The Washington bullpen was totally empty. What else was left?
So, he put on his cleats and volunteered. “The bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It’s definitely a game where they don’t want to throw position players. It’s not a give-away game. So I guess I was the next best option,” Jackson said. “This was a good old-fashioned fight.”
When will we sleep? Oh, who cares?
“This was almost like a playoff game. We were making high-energy mistakes,” said Manager Davey Johnson. “We missed a couple of throws because we were trying to do things too fast. Everybody was trying to crush the ball to end the game with one swing. Even our starter [Jordan Zimmermann] was too amped up at the start” of the game.
“It was all that playoff stuff,” Johnson said. “We’re very young. This is great. This is the learning curve.” Or, maybe, the cardiac arrest chart.
In the end, the Nats won thanks to three blessed infield hits. That’s it. The first was a seeing-eye grounder up the middle. The next was a checked-swing chop that only went 70 feet, but Kurt Suzuki’s accidental blow sucked three Braves infielders toward it just behind the mound; in that instant, an alert Danny Espinosa raced from first base to a completely unattended third base — a “stolen” base of a different kind that ultimately set up the win.
On the final play, the Nats won ugly — or, more precisely, they won Uggla. With men at first and third base and one out and the Braves’ infield playing in, pinch hitter Chad Tracy lashed a grounder at second baseman Dan Uggla, who plays the position with his bat. His only play, a basic one, was to throw home to get Espinosa.
But, as Tracy said, “Speed on the bases makes people panic.”
In a split second, Tracy’s groundball arrived, base runner Suzuki appeared in Uggla’s peripheral vision and skidded to a stop so Uggla couldn’t tag him easily and Espinosa was speeding toward the plate.
In that awful instant, the veteran Uggla had a total brain-and-glove cramp. He bobbled the ball, couldn’t get it out of his glove, turned to throw to first base, even though he that would be pointless since the game-ending run was scoring. In the end, he kicked the ball around, then went numb. The play was generously mis-scored as a hit for Tracy. It was more like a triple error for Uggla. Whatever.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my glove,” said Uggla, who also credited Suzuki for alertness in stopping quickly so he couldn’t get a quick 4-3 double play with a tag in the base path and throw to first.
“Once you don’t get a good handle on it, when somebody like Danny is running, you’re out of time,” Tracy said.
“If that game swings the other way, you don’t sleep too well tonight. It puts more pressure on you tomorrow. It was like a playoff atmosphere,” said Tracy, who’s played in them. “So we’re preparing for ’em.”
“Just a thing of beauty,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, mock seriously.
Nights like this form a community for those who stay to the end to see them together. The last Metro train from the Navy Yard station left nearly an hour before the final walk-off win — the Nats’ ninth of the year, the second most in baseball. A few thousand fans remained.
They’d jumped to their feet twice when Jayson Werth hit balls that looked for an instant like walk-off homers. One was a potential grand slam that died on the left field warning track in the bottom of the eighth, the other a drive to right in the 11th inning that died perhaps one foot short of clearing the fence for a homer.
They leaped up to scream when Adam LaRoche came even closer in the 10th inning with a ball that Johnson described as “inches” from ending the game instead of being caught with a baby hop at the top of the fence. As it did, the lone Nats reliever left — Craig Stammen, who pitched two scoreless innings for the win — rooted for it to carry. “Not quite,” Stammen said. “I had already gotten ready to jump up and down and had to stop.”
All around the Nats’ clubhouse the same word echoed, “Playoffs.”
“It’s huge,” said Tracy, “and they know that, too.”
After the game, the Braves were six games behind in the NL East and wondering how dire their future may look if the next two games here don’t turn out well for them. And the Nats are even more pumped.
How long could Stammen have continued to pitch if Tracy hadn’t hit for him? He’d pitched Sunday. “Forever,” he said. “My arm felt pretty fresh. I was going to go back to my days as a starter.
“A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game,” he added. “Well, since college or high school. There’s more anxiety, more adrenaline.”
More everything. Get used to it.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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