Sunday, April 10, 2011 5:25 p.m.
Updated at 9:41 p.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
NEW YORK -- Adam LaRoche had every reason to be down in the dumps. The Washington Nationals first baseman had been forced out of Sunday's game in the 11th inning after aggravating a groin injury sliding into second base. This, on top of the shoulder tear LaRoche is attempting to play through.
Though he's admittedly frustrated these nagging injuries turned him into a spectator at the end of the wildest game of the Nationals' young season -- a 7-3, extra-inning victory over the New York Mets that seemingly featured it all -- LaRoche couldn't help but smile about the manner in which his new team is going about its business.
"This group of guys has a chance to be something special," he said. "You can see it in here when guys show up. You can see it after a loss when everybody's patting each other on the back and pulling for each other the next day."
And you could see it during this all-hands-on-deck win, one that required every player on the Nationals' bench to contribute, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to pinch-hit and drop a sacrifice bunt, future Hall-of-Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez to finish out the game at first base and No. 3 and No. 4 hitters Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche to watch from the dugout due to injury.
"Shows a lot about this team and the direction we're going in," said right-hander Jason Marquis, who struck out nine batters over six superb innings to keep his team in the game.
That new direction resulted in a .500 road trip to Florida and New York and an overall 4-5 record heading home to face NL East powerhouse Philadelphia. There's still a long way to go, but the early results have been encouraging.
They're encouraging because the Nationals have managed to play competitive baseball despite a near-complete lack of clutch hitting. After going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position Sunday, they actually raised their season average in that department to a paltry .175.
Defense has been shaky at times. Baserunning hasn't been perfect. But the Nationals have managed to overcome that thanks to stellar pitching from both their rotation and the key members of their bullpen.
On Sunday, Marquis authored Washington's latest quality start, allowing two early runs but striking out nine for only the third time in his career (first since Sept. 4, 2004). His teammates had been completely shut down by Mets right-hander Chris Young (who allowed just one hit in seven innings) but Marquis' performance kept the game close and offered an opportunity for a late rally.
The Nationals responded with two runs in the eighth on Ian Desmond's RBI single and Rick Ankiel's RBI groundout. Unable to push across the go-ahead run, the game went into extra innings, a scenario that could have proved dicey if not for the ability of manager Jim Riggleman to turn things over to the rock-solid back end of his bullpen.
Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Sean Burnett combined to toss four innings of one-hit ball, combining with Marquis and middle reliever Chad Gaudin to strike out 17 Mets over the course of the afternoon.
Clippard and Burnett have yet to allow an earned run this season. Storen has allowed one earned run.
"If we can get into the sixth and seventh inning, we really feel good about our ballclub," Riggleman said. "That's pretty much everybody in baseball saying the same thing about their ballclubs. But it's really crucial for us, because we've got some strikeouts down there in that bullpen and we can stop some things, hopefully."
Confident in their bullpen's ability to keep the Mets from scoring the winning run, the Nationals finally broke through in the 11th against right-hander Blaine Boyer. It required a sacrifice bunt from Zimmermann, catcher Wilson Ramos pinch-running for LaRoche after the latter strained his groin, an RBI single from Rodriguez (who had been hitless entering this series) and a three-run homer from Laynce Nix, who entered with one hit in eight at-bats for the season.
And before it was fully complete, it required Rodriguez (perhaps the greatest catcher in baseball history) to play the bottom of the 11th at first base.
"I'm just going to go out there and if they hit it to me hard, I'll block it like a catcher," Rodriguez said with a smile. "What do you want me to do? I'm not scared to play that base. It's always good to let Jim know that I can play another position, because you never know. When you need a player, I can be that player that can do the job for him."
It took a lot of players doing various jobs to pull off this victory. It was far from a picture-perfect performance, but it was exactly the kind of performance these Nationals are going to need to pull off to stay competitive this season. They played three extra-inning games on this trip, winning twice.
And each time they do it, the confidence level inside their clubhouse grows, leading veterans like LaRoche to wonder whether this is merely the first sign of better things to come.
"What's nice about that is those guys have had some success late in games like today, and we've been able to score some big runs late in games," LaRoche said. "That can go a long way throughout he season as far as being comfortable in close games and being comfortable in extra innings and having a good feeling that we're going to get it done."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.