Can Jordan Zimmermann win 18 games this year?
ATLANTA — Their starting pitcher had departed some 4 1/2 hours earlier, ejected after plunking a batter in the first inning and then losing all semblance of his command in the second. Their manager had been ejected, too, not to mention their left fielder later in the evening.
Eight relievers (one of them actually a starter) had cobbled together 14 innings of work, though the last six of those innings wouldn't have been necessary had their closer recorded one more out in the bottom of the ninth.
Their star 20-year-old, scratched from the lineup earlier in the day with a bruised left triceps muscle after getting drilled by a pitch the previous night, had been forced into action late.
Then again, pretty much everyone in uniform was forced into action for this 5-hour, 29-minute marathon, with 44 of the 50 active players on the two rosters appearing in the game.
So when it finally ended, when Adam LaRoche had homered in the top of the 15th and Dan Haren had pitched the bottom of the inning — in the rain — to earn the first save of his 11-year career, the Nationals could only sit back and enjoy the feeling that comes only after you pull off an 8-7 victory over your fiercest rivals.
"Golly," LaRoche sighed. "What a battle."
And that probably doesn't even do this ballgame justice. Try to pick one storyline to focus on this game. There were more than a half-dozen worthy ones.
It began, though, with the retaliation so many expected the Nationals to exact upon the Braves after Bryce Harper had been hit by three pitches in the last three games between these clubs, including a fastball from Luis Avilan Friday night that left Harper's left triceps bruised and kept him out of the lineup. Stephen Strasburg did the honors, firing a 97-mph fastball into Justin Upton's left hip in the bottom of the first inning, a fairly obvious purpose pitch that riled up the crowd of 40,866 and prompted plate umpire Marvin Hudson to issue warnings to both dugouts.
Strasburg danced around the subject later when asked if he intentionally hit Upton — "I'm not gonna get into that," the right-hander replied — but his teammates clearly appreciated his actions.
"Whether it got away from him or not, he's got my respect," LaRoche said. "I was impressed."
"I mean, they're just throwing at us to throw at us," reliever Craig Stammen said. "[Avilan] can say he didn't do it on purpose, but he hit him in the back arm, which isn't even close when the guy's been throwing strikes all the time. So, I mean, you can say whatever it is, but the game will always police itself."
It appeared that would be the end of that storyline, except it wasn't. Because one inning later, Strasburg (who had otherwise exhibited pinpoint command in the bottom of the first) suddenly lost all ability to find the strike zone. He walked Jordan Schafer on four pitches to begin the second, then fired three consecutive wild pitches to Andrelton Simmons, including two that sailed well behind Simmons' back.
The last of them allowed Schafer to score, but it also left Hudson with no choice but to eject both Strasburg and Johnson (the protocol after a warning had been issued).
So, what exactly happened to Strasburg there?
"Just a couple long innings right before there," he said. "Just got a little cold. Just missed some spots. ... I can't really explain it. Just didn't really feel good out there and couldn't hit the spot."
"I've never seen his command so bad," said Johnson, who immediately asked Strasburg if he was injured (the pitcher insisted he was not). "He didn't come close to the first hitter he faced. Then [pitching coach Steve] McCatty went out, and he threw a curveball that was 8 feet outside. Then he threw a couple behind the hitter. Didn't look like they were trying to hit him. He couldn't even find the strike zone."
Intentional wildness or not, Strasburg and Johnson likely will face some discipline from Major League Baseball, perhaps minor suspensions.
Of more concern to the Nationals on Saturday night was the task of getting eight innings from a bullpen that has struggled as a unit in recent weeks. Little did they know they'd actually need 14 innings from the group.
Tanner Roark put in yeoman's work, tossing four scoreless innings, but the Braves started chipping away at the rest of the pen. A 6-2 Nationals lead in the sixth became a 6-4 lead when Brian McCann homered off Fernando Abad. Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nationals an insurance run with a solo homer in the eighth, but Tyler Clippard immediately gave it back on a home run to Freddie Freeman.
Even so, Rafael Soriano entered for the ninth with a two-run lead, and he put himself one out from sealing this victory, only to serve up a game-tying, two-run homer to Jason Heyward. It was Soriano's second blown save in his last two outings, and it would've been his third if not for Denard Span's highlight-reel catch on Wednesday against the Giants.
"He's a heck of a pitcher, and the ball was just up," Johnson said. "He looked like he was throwing pretty good. [The Braves] are swinging the bat pretty good. They hit four homers today, and it wasn't just off of him. He'll be back, he'll be fine."
So this affair moved into extra innings, at which point neither lineup could produce the one run necessary to end it. The Nationals during one stretch went 0-for-16. The Braves at another point went 0-for-14.
"It's all about pitching," said bench coach Randy Knorr, who wound up managing the final 14 innings following Johnson's ejection. "How are we going to match up the pitching to get through the game if it stays the same the whole time? That was the hardest part. But those guys, they grinded through. They wanted to beat them. They went after it, they didn't give up and they won the game."
They won the game because they got two scoreless innings from rookie Ian Krol and then three more scoreless innings from Stammen, who struck out five and was perfectly willing to take the mound for yet another inning if needed.
"I figured I'm going to pitch until the game's over," the right-hander said. "So, I'm either gonna get walked-off on, or I'm gonna win the game. ... Look at it that way, you're kind of like: 'Let's have fun and see what happens, and whatever does, that's the way it is.'"
LaRoche, who only entered the game in the ninth as a defensive replacement, finally broke the deadlock in the top of the 15th when he hammered Kris Medlen's 1-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers. All the Nationals needed was three more outs from their fill-in closer: Haren.
Having thrown six innings Thursday in his regular start against the Giants, Haren had already thrown his regular, between-starts bullpen session Saturday afternoon, throwing about 35 pitches. But after Strasburg was ejected early, he told McCatty and Knorr he would be available if they needed him.
"I'm proud of him for even doing that," Knorr said. "A lot of guys wouldn't have even gone down there after throwing a bullpen."
Haren figured he could fire all his bullets in that one inning of relief and wound up retiring three of the four batters he faced, two on strikeouts. And when he got Jordan Schafer to whiff on the 518th pitch of this baseball game, he let out a roar and pumped his fist, congratulated by catcher Wilson Ramos on recording the first save of his major-league career and giving the Nationals an oh-so-needed victory well worth the 5 1/2 hours it required.
"The vibe in the clubhouse after it was pretty neat," Haren said. "Coming in, being the last one in, it was awesome. We needed a game like this. Just something to pick our heads up."