As the Nationals' designated backup catcher for the night, Wilson Ramos knew he could lounge around in the dugout, pop sunflower seeds into his mouth and goof around with teammates. But as this game progressed, as the Nationals and Phillies kept trading blows with neither side able to deliver the knockout punch, Ramos began to realize his services might actually be needed at some point.
Sure enough, as the bottom of the 11th arrived, manager Davey Johnson got Ramos' attention at the other end of the dugout and held up five fingers. Translation: If reach the No. 5 spot in our lineup in this inning, you're hitting for the pitcher.
And just like that, Ramos transformed from his lazy-night-off mindset to emergency pinch-hitter mode.
"In that moment, I just take my batting gloves and say: 'OK, I'm the man,'" he said. "Go out and hit the ball hard."
Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon, Ramos fell behind in the count 0-2, then took a ball, then fouled two more pitches off before drilling a slider from Phillies reliever Michael Schwimer over shortstop Jimmy Rollins' head. Steve Lombardozzi came racing home and then took off to join the celebration near first base as Ramos was mobbed by teammates upon delivering the base hit that gave the Nationals' a 4-3 victory over their hated division rivals.
"The at-bat didn't start out too good," Johnson said. "But it ended good."
A crowd of 34,377, lured by a team-sponsored promotion to take back their park from the Phillies fans who in the past have invaded South Capitol Street, let out a roar previously heard only a handful of times in this facility. Having waited through nearly four hours of baseball, watching as the home team threatened to push across the go-ahead run but was unable to do it despite 23 men on base, those fans were rewarded with one of the more-satisfying of the Nationals' NL East-leading 17 victories.
"It speaks about the character of this team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We want to win. It was nice, obviously, to have the crowd behind us tonight. I'd give it 70-30 probably. But better than 20-80 the other way."
Truth be told, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a much better script for the first game of a weekend series they've been hyping for months. With young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both in the lineup for a surprising club that has spent the last 24 days in first place, there was plenty of anticipation in the stands when the game began.
That anticipation only built up over the course of 11 innings, experiencing some early downs when Strasburg served up two home runs but bouncing back up when role players Chad Tracy and Jesus Flores produced the three RBI necessary to keep this game alive.
Not that the Nationals didn't have plenty of opportunities to put the Phillies away earlier. They stranded 14 men on base, including two in the sixth and three in the eighth.
All the squandered chances left players frustrated and perhaps at times even defeated. Their manager, though, looked at the situation in a different light.
"Actually, at this point I really like it, because we're threatening," Johnson said. "A lot of times this year we've been awful quiet with the bats. I knew it's coming, and it was nice to see quality at-bats from some guys that haven't been doing it."
Reinvigorated by five scoreless innings from five different relievers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Perry -- the Nationals came up to bat in the 11th, determined to push that final, winning run across.
They managed to do it all with two outs, the rally jump-started by Lombardozzi's single to right. That brought Harper to the plate with a chance to win the game with one swing, and the crowd rose in anticipation of a magical moment. Instead, everyone had to settle for another quality at-bat out of the 19-year-old, who fell behind 0-2 and then battled his way to his third walk of the night.
Jayson Werth also drew a free pass from Schwimer, loading the bases for Ramos and setting the stage for the catcher.
"I was the last guy on the bench," Ramos said. "And, you know, I just was thinking: 'Try to get the runners in.'"
He did, setting off a mad celebration that players were still trying to process nearly an hour later.
"I was freaking out," Lombardozzi said. "I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself: 'Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.'"
He sure did. And because of it, the Nationals gave themselves -- and their fans -- a heart-stopping victory, and perhaps even more reason to believe this is merely the first step toward even bigger things.
"Right now, it's just a game," Desmond said. "It's just one game. We've got to go out and play 'em hard tomorrow, and we've got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there's meaningful baseball between both of us teams towards the end of the year."