By Adam Kilgore, Sunday, August 5, 9:13 AM
The two baseballs that turned the Washington Nationals’ taut, tie game into a delirious, raucous victory Saturday night lived short, painful lives. Danny Espinosa destroyed the first one, a slider that zipped out over the visitors’ bullpen at Nationals Park as if blasted out of a cannon. Bryce Harper dispatched the second, a curveball that peeked at the third deck hanging above right, nosebleeds typically only visited by fans unafraid of heights. And birds.
The two vicious swings, taken in the eighth inning by a pair of sluggers in slumps, turned a complex, messy game into a party. So much led to up the end of the Nationals’ 10-7 victory over the Miami Marlins: three unearned runs on three errors, a five-inning start from Jordan Zimmermann, two home runs by Adam LaRoche, a dramatic, station-to-station rally in the eighth. And then Espinosa and Harper blew the lid off of everything.
The victory allowed the Nationals a measure of breathing room in the National League East, nudging their lead to three games as the Atlanta Braves lost. Espinosa had been primarily responsible for the hole the Nationals fought out of all night, his two errors leading to a pair of unearned off Zimmermann, whose streak of 21 consecutive starts of at least five innings — every outing of his season — came to an end.
The Nationals’ rollicking rally from a 6-4 deficit built slowly at first. LaRoche reached on an error by Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee. Jayson Werth followed with a walk, which put the tying run on base. Catcher Kurt Suzuki, making his Nationals debut after he was acquired Friday in a trade, chased two high fastballs from Mike Dunn.
The park deflated as Lombardozzi walked to the plate. Earlier, his booting of a groundball led to the Marlins’ sixth run, and their third unearned run of the game. Now, he ripped a single back up the middle.
LaRoche lumbered around third as center fielder Gorkys Hernandez’s throw sailed in from center. He ignored Tyler Moore’s suggestion to slide and tried to step around catcher John Buck’s foot. Even super-slo-mo replays could not conclude whether LaRoche’s toe clipped the plate, but he was called safe and the Nats’ had cut the lead to one.
Moore walked into the box, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, trying to keep the rally alive. All spring training, he took sessions and sessions of batting practice with one focus: hitting the ball to the opposite field. With the trying run on second, he ripped a 1-2 fastball into right field. Werth slid home.
Espinosa strode into the batter’s box with the Nationals in need of a hero, a predicament he bore responsibility for. His two throwing errors had led to two unearned runs against Zimmermann. He had also been mired in a 4-for-41 slump. He is not a player who takes struggles easily — he grips the bat tighter and grits his teeth. Manager Davey Johnson implores him often to relax.
With the count 2-2, Dunn threw him a slider. Espinosa annihilated it. The crowd exploded upon contact. Espinosa threw down his bat and ran around the bases. Werth pushed him out of the dugout for a curtain call, and Espinosa hopped up the steps and lifted his hand.
Harper came to the plate, like Espinosa, trying to break out of a rough patch. His batting average for the second half hung below .200. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein had told him not too put so much pressure on himself. Johnson asked him, “Is it possible you could relax?” Harper responded, “I can’t change.”
Dunn tried to throw him a 2-2 curveball, and Harper crushed it. He absolutely crushed it. The ball soared over the Nationals’ bullpen. Harper admired it for a moment and then tossed his bat maybe seven yards. The place erupted again.
The game’s end made you forget what a nail-biter it had been.
The Nationals gave Zimmermann an extra day of rest following his last start in an effort to scuttle inflammation in his right shoulder. Zimmermann had been having trouble loosening up before starts, and team doctors prescribed physical treatment and anti-inflammatory pills. He had no medical restrictions for his start, and Johnson insisted the Nationals would not push him back again.
“I’m not really worried about it,” Johnson said before the game. “Even at the height of his problem, he’d still be throwing good. Extra couple days’ rest, feeling a little better, I might be worried he’s too strong, starts rushing or something. Hopefully not.”
Zimmermann allowed five runs, only three of them earned, in five innings. He showed few effects from the extended layoff. He hit a batter and walked another in the second, which for him qualifies as a control meltdown – he had walked one batter in his previous 18 innings. He hit 95 mph with his fastball, the same velocity as usual.
His health had less to do with his outing than his defense. Espinosa made two poor throws behind Zimmermann, both at critical junctures and both leading to Marlins runs. Later, in the most critical juncture, Espinosa came through.