Nats' rain-delayed win is worth the wait

Nats' rain-delayed win is worth the wait
September 9, 2012, 1:01 am
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Jayson Werth was ready to step to the plate for the bottom of the ninth inning, Heath Bell on the mound, the Nationals trailing by a run. And then a wall of black clouds appeared from behind the third base stands, a fierce wind kicked up and rain began falling in buckets as a storm system that produced a tornado only a few miles away in Northern Virginia overtook Nationals Park.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse for what proved to be a 2-hour, 33-minute delay, followed by sudden word from the umpires' room the game was about to resume.

"We had like 11 minutes," Werth said. "An 11-minute warning. Usually they give you 20 or 30. Today was 11. And it turned out to be the right number."

Indeed, because 11 minutes were all the Nationals needed to restart their engines, retake the field and ultimately retake a ballgame that will long be remembered as one of the wildest (and most satisfying) in club history.

Werth's towering home run off Bell to open the bottom of the ninth tied the game and sent it to extra innings. That set the stage for September call-up Corey Brown to loft the game-winning single to right in the bottom of the 10th, the final blow in a 7-6 victory that was witnessed by only a couple hundred faithful fans but resonated far beyond the confines of South Capitol Street.

With perhaps their most improbable win of an improbable season, the Nationals moved one step closer to their first NL East title, maintaining their 6 12-game lead over the also-victorious Braves while lowering their magic number to 17.

That they did so under such unusual circumstances, at the end of a long day at the ballpark that began with news of Stephen Strasburg's immediate shutdown by management, only sweetened the mood.

"You guys had to rewrite a few stories, huh?" manager Davey Johnson said with a smile as he sat down for his postgame news conference. "What a game."

The dramatic rally actually began in the bottom of the eighth, when Ryan Zimmerman clubbed a two-run homer off Miami reliever A.J. Ramos to bring the Nationals to within one run. They were champing at the bit to complete the rally in the bottom of the ninth, only to have everything put on hold when the storm arrived.

So as fans rushed to take cover while getting doused, players retreated to the clubhouse to catch some college football on TV and grab a snack. They didn't know when -- or if -- the game would resume, and indeed for a moment it appeared the umpires might call the game and award an eight-inning victory to the Marlins.

"I was really worried, and so was general manager Mike Rizzo," Johnson said. "He was worried that they would bang it. We kept hoping they'd hold on, because I think it was real close. It just looked like there wasn't going to be much window. And Riz said, 'Let's wait 15 minutes,' or something, and we did."

Thus the game was restarted in rapid-fire fashion, with Bell retaking the mound more than 2 12 hours after he originally did, and Werth stepping to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth. He worked the count full, fouling off two 3-2 pitches before finally connecting on a fastball and sending it soaring into the Red Porch area beyond the left-center field fence.

"Once I got to 2-2, I figured he probably wasn't going to be messing around with any breaking stuff," Werth said. "He's got a good fastball and likes to work up in the zone, and I got a pitch that was probably top of the zone but was up just enough."

The game proceeded into extra innings, with Drew Storen striking out the side to complete a dominant performance by the back end of the Nationals bullpen. Storen, Tyler Clippard and rookie Christian Garcia combined to retire nine of the 10 batters they faced, eight via strikeout.

"Nice," said Storen when informed of the strikeout total. "Yeah, that's usually a pretty good sign right there."

The game-winning rally developed over the course of five batters, ignited by Adam LaRoche's single off reliever Chad Gaudin, then boosted by Ian Desmond's base hit to right, with the slow-footed LaRoche chugging all the way around to slide safely headfirst into third base.

"I mean, he's not your fastest runner," Johnson said. "But he had made up his mind: He was going to third, and he did a heck of a job. Haven't seen him slide headfirst -- ever -- so you know emotions were running high."

With runners now on the corners and nobody out, the Marlins intentionally walked Danny Espinosa, loading the bases and forcing manager Ozzie Guillen to shift left fielder Justin Ruggiano to a spot just in front of second base as part of a five-man infield.

And when Kurt Suzuki immediately pounded a groundball right to Ruggiano, who fired to the plate for the wholly unconventional, 7-2 force out, the Nationals suddenly had to wonder whether their luck had run out.

"I have never seen it work," Johnson said of the five-man infield. "That was the first time I'd ever seen it work."

No worries, because moments later Brown stepped to the plate and delivered the game-winner. After sitting around for six hours playing no role whatsoever in the ballgame, the 26-year-old rookie lofted a soft liner to right field, the ball glancing off Giancarlo Stanton's glove and falling to the ground as Desmond crossed the plate with the winning run.

"In my situation, you got to always be ready to pinch-hit at any time," Brown said. "I had some confidence in myself. I was just trying to relax a little bit in that situation."

Brown may have been relaxed in the moment, but as soon as he reached first base and was mobbed by teammates, there was nothing but excitement on display from the best team in baseball after one of its signature wins of the season.

So what if it happened three hours after everyone originally hoped it would. It was still well worth the wait.

"Oh, yeah," Johnson said. "Got to use everybody. It was fun."