Postseason clincher is no cinch for Nationals

Postseason clincher is no cinch for Nationals
September 20, 2012, 5:28 am
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For seven innings, they gave no reason for the 26,931 in attendance to believe they had a rally in them, one that would give everyone at Nationals Park reason to celebrate the clinching of Washington's first postseason berth in 79 years.

His team down six runs in the second half of a doubleheader against the Dodgers, Davey Johnson pulled three of his biggest bats -- Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche -- from the game. With his starter, John Lannan, knocked out in the fourth, Johnson handed the ball to a right-hander who has spent the majority of the last three seasons on the disabled list (Chien-Ming Wang) and a left-hander who spent the last five months at Class AAA (Zach Duke).

Could you blame so many of those fans for heading to the exits early?

And then something unexpected happened. Michael Morse led off the eighth with a solo homer. Two batters later, Steve Lombardozzi blasted a two-run shot. Adrian Gonzalez booted a ball at first base. Mark DeRosa poked a single to right field. Bryce Harper beat out a slow roller to third. Danny Espinosa singled to left. And Morse (batting for the second time in the inning) delivered another clutch hit, a two-run single to right that incredibly left this game tied at 6 and left those who did remain in the park in a state of ecstasy, realizing they might just witness the Nationals clinch in stunning fashion.

"That was one of the coolest innings I've been a part of on this team," Morse said.

If the eighth inning was one of the coolest innings the Nationals had experienced, the ninth inning was one of the cruelest.

Tyler Clippard, asked to keep the game tied and give his teammates a chance to win it in the bottom of the inning, got ahead of leadoff man Matt Kemp with a slider and a changeup. He got Kemp to foul off an 0-2 fastball. Then he tried to sneak another 0-2 fastball at the letters past the Dodgers slugger.

Kemp wasn't fooled one bit. He crushed Clippard's pitch into the Red Porch seats beyond the fence in left-center, the final blow in a wild, 7-6 Los Angeles victory that forced the Nationals and their fans to wait at least another 24 hours before they can officially make postseason plans.

"It hurt tonight, big time," Clippard said. "That was a huge momentum shift, there in the bottom of the eighth for us. I think everybody in the ballpark, including myself, felt like we were going to win this game tonight. It's even tougher to swallow knowing that I made the pitch I wanted to make and got hurt on it."

A long day of baseball that saw the Nationals reach the precipice of a postseason berth via their 3-1 victory in the first game of this rainout-induced doubleheader ended in frustrating fashion. They still need only to win once over the next two weeks to clinch at least the NL's final Wild Card, but that wasn't much consolation for a clubhouse full of players and coaches who have set much loftier goals for themselves.

"The only thing that's going to mean anything to me is when we clinch the pennant," Johnson said. "That's the only number I'm concerned about. It's down to 9, and that's good. We can get it down to 8, go from there. And whatever number that is, that's going to be my favorite number."

The Nationals did reduce their magic number for the NL East title (from 10 to 9) though their lead over the Braves is down to 5 games after Atlanta won in Miami. They're still firmly in the driver's seat, but they also can't help but wonder what might have been Wednesday night.

What they might be wondering above all else is what might have been had plate umpire Alan Porter not blown a call in the fourth inning that didn't look all that damaging at the time because of the lopsided score but ultimately might have proved the difference between a win and a loss.

On the play in question, Ryan Zimmerman fielded Hanley Ramirez's sharp grounder, then got tangled up with Adrian Gonzalez as the latter tried to advance to third base. Zimmerman did apply the tag to Gonzalez for the final out of the inning, and the Nationals trotted off the field believing they trailed 5-0.

Dodgers manger Don Mattingly, though, emerged from the dugout and said a few words to Porter, who then convened with his fellow umpires. After a brief discussion, Porter motioned for Johnson out of the Nationals dugout and informed him Los Angeles was being credited with another run because Kemp (who had been on third base when the ball was put into play) had crossed the plate before Gonzalez was tagged out.

Replays were beyond conclusive: Kemp was a good 10 feet from the plate at the time of the tag, and thus the run should not have counted. Not that the Nationals needed to see the replay to know what they saw with their own eyes.

"I didn't know they were arguing about the play, because when I saw Zimmerman tagging Gonzalez, I knew that the guy wasn't even really close to the plate," catcher Jesus Flores said. "I was totally in shock, because I didn't know what was going on. ... Terrible call."

Crew chief Mike Winters declined to speak to a pool reporter after the game.

"They obviously blew the call," Johnson said. "It wasn't reviewable. They all discussed it, and evidently nobody was paying attention. But Kemp wasn't running. He just wasn't running. The tag play was before. Obviously they missed it, but you'd think when the three of them got together, somebody would've been paying attention."

At the time, no one knew that extra run would make much difference. Of course, at the time no one knew the Nationals would have a six-run rally in them.

Nor that they would squander that rally by night's end and still leave themselves one step shy of the postseason.

Perhaps they'll take that step Thursday night.

"I don't think thinking about all that Wild Card stuff helps any," Morse said. "All you're doing is distracting you from playing. We got this far for a reason, and that was winning and playing good baseball. I think we're just going to keep trying to do that."