Nats win an emotional ballgame

Nats win an emotional ballgame
May 15, 2012, 5:17 am

The range of emotions inside the Nationals' clubhouse Monday night following a wild, 8-5 victory over the Padres was on display for all to witness.

In one corner stood Bryce Harper, proudly talking about the first home run of his career and the curtain call that followed. Across the room, Sandy Leon gingerly maneuvered around with his right leg in a brace and propped up on a cart, a severe ankle sprain having derailed his big-league debut in less than four innings.

Over in another corner stood Sean Burnett, the surprise hero of the night after entering with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth and inducing a game-ending, 1-2-3 double play off the bat of San Diego's Jesus Guzman. Only a few feet away, Henry Rodriguez's locker sat empty, the right-hander having kept himself out of sight after loading the bases on three walks in that ninth inning and getting unceremoniously yanked by Davey Johnson to a chorus of boos.

How does one club deal with so many mixed emotions in such a short time span? From the deflation of Sunday night's crushing loss in Cincinnati to the elation of Harper's first home run to the devastation of Leon's frightening injury to the resignation of Rodriguez's latest misadventure to the jubilation of Burnett's escape act to the realization the Nationals are back in first place at 22-13.

It's almost too much for the mind to process.

"I know. It's crazy," said reliever Craig Stammen, who wound up earning the win. "We've got a very short memory in this clubhouse, with all the guys that are getting hurt and then the crazy game like we had last night. It was good to get this one under our belts and finish the way we did."

The dramatic and happy conclusion to the night certainly made it a lot easier for (most) everyone inside that clubhouse to smile, none more so than Harper.

In the 15th game of his career, the 19-year-old finally delivered what he built his reputation on: power. Mashing a 2-1 slider from right-hander Tim Stauffer in the bottom of the third, Harper sent the ball sailing on a line to straightaway center field, depositing it well up the grass batter's eye at Nationals Park, perhaps 420 feet way.

Before the announced crowd of 19,434 -- it actually was much smaller due to the ever-present threat of rain -- even realized what happened, Harper was nearly all the way around the bases, sprinting the 360 feet so as not to appear to show up Stauffer.

"I'm going to get my butt around those bases as fast as I can," the rookie outfielder said. "Pete Rose tried to get around every single bag before the ball landed. That's what I want to do."

The crowd continued to roar after Harper returned to the dugout, doling out high-fives to everyone in sight, until it became clear the masses wanted an acknowledgement from the kid. Danny Espinosa, the next batter, stepped out of the box multiple times, trying to delay things and give Harper the opportunity to take his curtain call.

Harper, though, wasn't sure if this was an appropriate move on his part.

"I don't want to show up those guys in the other dugout," he said. "I didn't want to show up that guy at all. I was just waiting until someone said something like: 'Go ahead.'"

That someone was Jayson Werth, the injured right fielder who was in the dugout for the first time since breaking his wrist May 6 and told Harper: "Go get up there, kid."

"It was pretty cool," Harper said. "I was pretty excited about that."

The jubilation over the home run, though, was short-lived, because only minutes later Leon was barreled over by Padres third baseman Chase Headley and got his right leg caught underneath him. Helped off the field by assistant trainer Mike McGowan and bench coach Randy Knorr, the 23-year-old catcher later learned he suffered a high right ankle sprain less than four innings into the first game of his career.

"Such an outstanding young man," Johnson said. "His first big-league game, all pumped up, and have to get hurt in his first game. That's tough."

The Leon injury forced Jesus Flores into the game and perhaps threw starter Ross Detwiler out of whack. The left-hander proceeded to give up four runs between the fourth and fifth innings, letting the Padres take a 5-4 lead.

"It kind of throws you off, because it's something that doesn't always happen," Detwiler said of pairing up with a new catcher in mid-inning. "You just kind of have to adapt, and I didn't."

No worries, though, because Detwiler's teammates rallied to his cause, with Ian Desmond delivering a two-run double in the sixth and Chad Tracy and Xavier Nady each homering in the eighth to put the Nationals up 8-5.

That should've been a comfortable cushion for Rodriguez, but the inexperienced closer continued his recent downward spiral and nearly blew his fourth save in seven tries. After walking two of the first three batters he faced in the ninth, Rodriguez saw Burnett start to warm up in the home bullpen. After walking yet another batter to load the bases and bring the go-ahead run to the plate, he got the unceremonious hook from Johnson, who earlier in the day gave an impassioned endorsement to the struggling right-hander.

"I still have a lot of confidence in him," Johnson said even after pulling Rodriguez (who has issued 12 walks and six wild pitches in 15 23 innings). "I went up to him after the game, I said: 'Henry, you're my man. I've still got a lot of confidence in you.' I mean, that's the first time he's actually been wild."

So in came Burnett, trying to pitch his way out of the worst possible jam. And then managed to escape the jam in the best possible way: on a comebacker that resulted in a 1-2-3, game-ending, double play.

"As the inning starts to unfold, you realize that the phone may ring and it might be you," said Burnett, who was credited with his ninth career save. "You're always prepared, but you're never expecting to go in there. I was just trying not to do too much, just trying to get three outs before they score some runs."

Burnett did just that. And because of it, the Nationals were able to smile at the end of a long, strange, emotional night.