Yunel Escobar is different from his Washington Nationals teammates. In his native Cuba, baseball is played with a lot of emotion and style. And even after eight years of playing baseball in the United States, Escobar has adapted some to the more sterile style of play here but not completely. So after he swatted a 10th-inning, walk-off solo homer in a 2-1 win Tuesday night over the St. Louis Cardinals, Escobar’s playfulness broke through.
After a tense, back-and-forth game that featured a lot of base runners but few runs, Escobar knew the situation well. He knew that Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva, a former Toronto Blue Jays teammate, was going to try to get ahead in the count. So Escobar sent a first-pitch inside fastball with two outs over the left field fence. And after he rounded third base and tossed his helmet to the side, Escobar curiously slid headfirst into home plate under the mob of jumping, Gatorade-throwing teammates.
“Everyone was waiting up, so I went down,” he said in Spanish with a smile. “You’ve got to change a little bit.”
The Nationals acquired Escobar, 32, this winter to patch up their void at second base, but a knee injury to Anthony Rendon in spring training forced Escobar to play third. And while Denard Span was returning from his own injury, Escobar even hit leadoff. Escobar has had a checkered past with previous teams, but he has done everything the Nationals have asked.
“He’s a good player,” Jayson Werth said. “. . . He takes a good at-bat. He’s got a good approach. He’s a hard worker. When you see a guy in the clubhouse versus across the field, it’s totally different. He’s been a great addition and a big part of the team so far.”
And Escobar does it all with his own style. He talks to umpires during at-bats. He twirls his bat in between pitches. He flashes a broad smile.
“He’s more of the Cuban flavor that we’re all missing,” Tuesday’s starter Gio Gonzalez said. “I was 50 percent of that. He’s the full percentage. I think he’s just exciting. He’s got life to him. Teammates love him here. He’s just a different ballplayer. It just seems like he’s more than happy, more than welcome to be here. We’re treating him like he’s been here for five, six years already.”
The Nationals escaped Tuesday with a victory over the Cardinals, a team that has beaten them often over the past three years, thanks to good defense and tough pitching in critical situations — except for Drew Storen’s blown save in the ninth inning.
Through the first eight innings, the Nationals allowed 14 base runners but no runs. Gonzalez accounted for 12 over six scoreless innings that featured lucky bounces and strong defense, including from previously shaky shortstop Ian Desmond.
The Nationals — who won for the fifth time in their past six games — walked a tightrope all night behind their pitching staff. Gonzalez allowed base runners in every inning. But he managed to wriggle out of each situation with the right pitch and fortuitous bounce.
As if it were a theme all night, Tanner Roark pitched around a hit and an error in a scoreless seventh. Matt Thornton escaped a one-hit eighth inning with a strong defensive play by Desmond in the hole to erase a would-be hit.
The Nationals played a tense game all night because their offense also produced plenty of base runners but couldn’t push across many. In all, the Nationals and Cardinals produced 31 combined base runners but only three runs.
The Nationals’ first run came in the third inning when Bryce Harper chopped a soft single that scored Desmond from second. The chance to do more damage ended when Ryan Zimmerman lifted a flyball to center that Jon Jay caught, and runners Werth and Harper took off as if the ball were to going to land past Jay’s glove. After the catch, both runners retreated to their bases. Harper’s foot touched past second on his way to third, and he didn’t re-touch the base on the way back to first. The mistake ended the threat.
Over the next six innings, the Nationals failed to cash in fruitful situations. After Storen blew the save in the ninth, Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla drew tough walks and Span reached on an error in a hard-fought at-bat. But Desmond struck out and Werth lined a ball to center that Jay dove and caught to rob a potential game-winning hit.
“A good play,” Werth said.
The Nationals were in this spot because Storen couldn’t hold on to a 1-0 lead. A hanging slider resulted in a bloop leadoff single for Matt Carpenter. A wild pitch moved Carpenter to second base. Storen struck out Jason Heyward, but another wild pitch moved Carpenter to third. Hot-hitting Matt Holliday smacked an inside change-up to left field to score Carpenter and tie the game. It was Storen’s first blown save of the season.
This only set the stage for Escobar’s hit. Tuesday’s game was Escobar’s first in the lineup since Friday, when he exited the game with a groin strain. He knew he would still have to manage the injury. And after watching many stunted rallies, Escobar took it upon himself to end the game.
“I needed to hit the ball to get it out because a base hit wouldn’t do a thing,” he said. “Getting on first would be the same as other innings. I was looking for a big swing. . . . I knew it was out once I hit it.”