It began innocently enough, a leadoff walk drawn by rookie Michael Taylor with the Nationals trailing the Pirates by three runs in the bottom of the eighth. The sellout crowd of 41,880 applauded the effort but hardly sensed what that plate appearance was about to trigger.
The vibe picked up more after Denard Span singled, then even more after Kevin Frandsen blooped a base hit to right, bringing Taylor home with the Nationals’ first run of the game. Then, deflation after Anthony Rendon grounded into a double play that appeared to kill whatever momentum had built up during the rally.
Up to the plate, though, stepped Adam LaRoche, and there has been no hotter bat in the Nationals’ lineup over the last two weeks. So when the veteran first baseman drilled a 1-0 pitch from All-Star lefty Tony Watson over the wall in right field, tying up a ballgame that had appeared lost only a few minutes earlier, Nationals Park roared like it hadn’t in quite some time.
“When Rochey hit that bomb,” Frandsen said, “that place was going nuts.”
Nuts enough to produce an awkward curtain call, with LaRoche coaxed out of the dugout just as Watson was throwing his next pitch to Ian Desmond.
“Shoot, I didn’t know what was going on,” LaRoche said. “Teammates down there. [Son] Drake’s down there. And guys are pushing me up on the top step. I still don’t know what happened. I take it I was a little late getting out there?”
No worries, because the biggest celebration of the night was saved for the bottom of the ninth, when Wilson Ramos completed the Nationals’ improbable rally, lofting a ground-rule double over Gregory Polanco’s head in right field to score Bryce Harper and leave that sellout crowd dancing in the aisles following the home team’s fifth straight win.
“I view this team as tenacious,” manager Matt Williams said. “They don’t give up.”
Indeed, 24 of the Nationals’ 68 wins this season have been of the come-from-behind variety, few as impressive as this one against a tough Pirates bullpen.
That it included so many contributors — six different members of the lineup either got a hit or drew a walk to make the rally possible — only added to the significance.
“We knew we were always in it,” Frandsen said. “With the guys that we have and the power that we have, there’s a chance that we can get back in it no matter what.”
The Nationals trailed 3-0 nearly the entire night, unable to get anything going against Pittsburgh lefty Jeff Locke and unable to overcome another shaky start from Gio Gonzalez. But the tide began to turn once the Nats bullpen took control of the game. Craig Stammen tossed three scoreless innings to keep the deficit at 3-0, then Matt Thornton retired the side in the top of the ninth once the game was tied, setting the stage for the final rally in the bottom of the inning.
That final rally was sparked by Harper, who once again displayed patience and poise in working the count full against lefty Justin Wilson before drawing a walk, the eighth time he has reached base in his last 20 plate appearances. Harper then turned aggressive, swiping second base after Wilson’s first pitch to Ramos got away from catcher Russell Martin.
With the winning run now on second and nobody out, Ramos understood his first priority given the situation.
“I was concentrating … just try to hit the ball the other way to move the runner,” he said. “But the thing that I did, that’s better than moving the runner.”
It certainly was. Down in the count 1-2, Ramos nonetheless smoked a high liner toward right field. It landed beyond Polanco’s reach and skipped over the fence into the Nationals’ bullpen, but Harper wasn’t entirely sure and so he kept chugging around third to score before realizing there was no play at the plate.
“I didn’t care,” he said. “I had no clue if it was over the fence, or if it was off the wall or Polanco had to get on it. I was just trying to roll as fast as I could.”
Ramos coasted into second base, where his teammate mobbed him, punching the affectionately nicknamed “Buffalo” in the gut and then dousing him.
“They can hit hard, but you don’t care in that moment,” he said. “It’s an amazing moment, an exciting day for me. And especially when [Ian Desmond] threw me the cooler with Gatorade, that was amazing.”