Mark Zuckerman after the Phillies walk off against the Nats
PHILADELPHIA — As the ball soared toward the right-field bleachers and the previously raucous crowd of 44,990 fell dead-silent, the visitors dugout at Citizens Bank Park sprung to life. In a season with precious few moments of true elation, Chad Tracy's down-to-the-last-strike home run in the top of the ninth Monday night was about as good as it's been for the Nationals.
One pitch away from a ho-hum loss to the Phillies, the Nationals now had new life, Tracy having delivered a game-tying homer on an 0-2 pitch for the second time in 72 hours. The prevailing sentiment in the dugout: This game was theirs now.
"You gotta play the game, but when you tie it up, I think all of us had a feeling," Tracy said. "We expected to win, sure."
A feeling that had vanquished into thin air only 10 minutes later when Fernando Abad surrendered his third single of the bottom of the ninth, this one a soft liner up the middle by Domonic Brown, bringing Ben Revere home with the run that dealt the Nationals a 5-4, punch-to-the-gut loss.
"You tie it up late, and everybody's emotions are running high and everybody's feeling good," Tracy said. "And then they come out and put some good at-bats together at the end and steal it right back from you."
For 2 1/2 months now, the Nationals have been searching for a momentum-turner, a string of victories that would reset this season on an upward path at last. But every time they appear to be headed in that direction, they're stopped dead in their tracks, finding new and more excruciating ways to lose ballgames.
This one stung as much as any this season. Not because it was a particularly well-played game. Dan Haren was erratic again, yielding four runs over six innings. John Lannan wasn't especially sharp either in his return from the DL and his first career start against the franchise that drafted him eight years ago but emerged having allowed only two runs over five innings.
But the manner in which the Nationals clawed their way back late — getting a two-out RBI single from Ian Desmond off Mike Adams in the top of the eighth and then Tracy's game-tying blast off Jonathan Papelbon with two outs in the top of the ninth — was among this team's more inspiring developments in weeks.
"Just an unbelievable job by Chad, picking us up again, two strikes," said Haren, a former teammate of Tracy's in Arizona. "He never wavered from his gameplan. Fought off a couple good pitches. And hit the mistake that was given to him. That was really fun to watch."
Tracy's at-bat was a study in perseverance. He fouled off four straight offerings from Papelbon: fastball, fastball, fastball, splitter. And then on the fifth pitch, a 93-mph fastball up and over the plate, he delivered his third homer of the season, second in three nights, each on an 0-2 count.
"I was just trying to be short, trying to cover as many pitches as I could," the veteran said. "He came in, and I kind of fought it off with two strikes. I was looking away. I just told myself to be real short and real compact and as loose as I could. And I just cut it off."
The game now tied 4-4, manager Davey Johnson entrusted the outcome to Fernando Abad, the previously unknown left-hander who has burst onto the scene in the last month and become a viable option in key situations. Johnson also had Drew Storen warming when the inning began, but only would have summoned the right-hander had Abad gotten a quick out, bringing Michael Young to the plate with nobody on base and keeping Storen from having to deal with the possibility of a stolen base attempt.
"I couldn't get [Storen] ready in time, because I didn't want him to warm up, and with the first guy left-handed, if [Abad] gets him, I go to Storen," the manager said. "If he doesn't, he's got to hold the guys on. It's that simple."
Abad made it all moot when he surrendered a leadoff single to Revere. Though he got Young to fly out to center for the first out, he immediately followed with another single to Jimmy Rollins.
Abad very nearly escaped the first-and-third jam, striking out Stephen Lerud on a high fastball and then running the count to 2-2 on Brown. His final pitch of the night was exactly what he wanted — a 94-mph inside fastball — but Brown managed to make just enough contact to send the ball softly up the middle for the game-winner.
"Sinker in, broken bat," Abad said. "He put it in the right spot."
The Phillies celebrated at the center of the diamond. The Nationals trudged away, their record back under the .500 mark, a potentially uplifting victory having just devolved into yet another demoralizing loss.
"Nobody's happy right now," Tracy said. "Especially with coming back and having it stolen back from us."