CINCINNATI -- The line between a postgame clubhouse thumping with music, laughter and good vibes following a big win and a postgame clubhouse silent with players mulling around while questioning their ability to bounce back from a bad loss is razor-thin.
The scene underneath the third-base stands at Great American Ball Park late Saturday afternoon could have been one of dismay, of soul-searching, perhaps even underlying panic. The Nationals, fresh off a record-setting, 15-0 thumping at the hands of the Reds, had just blown a 5-1 lead late and were on the verge of dropping their second straight game in demoralizing fashion.
But the moment Craig Stammen got Jay Bruce to whiff at a curveball with the tying run on second base in the bottom of the 11th inning of a wild afternoon on the banks of the Ohio River, none of that mattered. Inside the clubhouse minutes later, the music blared, everybody was in a joyous mood and whatever blemishes there were during this 7-6 victory seemed insignificant in the bigger picture.
What if the Nationals had lost?
"I don't even want to think about that," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "Obviously, it would be drastically different. What I liked about the game is we continued to fight."
It took all the fight the Nationals could muster to escape with a victory in this one. No matter that they were in control nearly the entire afternoon, up 5-1 in the eighth inning thanks to Ross Detwiler's quality start and homers by Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Werth.
Enough transpired over the next four innings to fill a novel, beginning with a two-run eighth by the Reds that included three hits off Drew Storen and then two costly errors within three seconds of each other. With runners on first and second and one out, Storen got Devin Mesoraco to hit a sharp grounder to short. The ball sailed straight through Ian Desmond's legs, his second error of the day and already his fourth in five games this season.
"Look, nobody likes to make errors," Desmond said. "I can't equate it to anything, but it's brutal. Making an error is brutal. You're telling pitchers: 'Hey, give me a groundball,' and then booting them around. But I think last year I kind of figured out there's nothing you can do about it now. And I feel like I'm doing the same this year."
More on Desmond's redemption in a moment, but before that happened, Harper committed his own ghastly fielding gaffe. Needing only to get the ball back into the infield and prevent the tying run from advancing into scoring position, the 20-year-old instead airmailed a laser toward the plate, reaching the backstop and giving the Reds an opportunity to complete their rally.
The Nationals have been harping on Harper to rein himself in on such plays and are starting to get frustrated when he doesn't learn his lesson.
"He can't control his emotions," manager Davey Johnson said. "He wants to just airmail it all the way, and he's going to have to learn. ... He understands it. He just can't control his emotions. He's a smart player, but he gets wound up in the moment."
Harper wasn't particularly contrite when discussing the ill-advised play.
"Maybe not the right throw in that situation," he said. "But if I throw him out, I'm perfect. If I don't, then everybody looks and me and says: 'You're terrible.' Nothing you can do."
Storen managed to get Harper off the hook when he struck out pinch-hitter Xavier Paul to end the eighth. With the Nationals still leading 5-3, and with a fresh Rafael Soriano taking the mound for the ninth, there seemed no reason for concern.
Soriano, though, melted down himself in search of his third save of the year. He immediately surrendered a homer to Shin-Soo Choo, cutting the lead to one run. He nearly gave up another to Joey Votto, only to watch the ball bounce off the left-field wall and Votto slide into third base with a triple.
Then, the real disaster: Soriano's very next pitch, a slider down and away to Brandon Phillips. Way down and away. The ball wound up at the backstop, and Votto wound up crossing the plate with the tying run as the crowd of 34,762 roared with delight.
"I think it's the first time something happened like that," Soriano said. "I'm happy with the team winning. And I'll come back tomorrow. It's another day."
Soriano could more easily shrug it off because his teammates bounced up off the mat and produced a dramatic rally of their own in the 11th, with none other than Desmond leading the charge. The fourth-year shortstop stepped to the plate with two hits in 18 at-bats this season, not to mention the four errors, but he erased much of that with one monstrous swing off J.J. Hoover, sending the ball flying 439 feet into the upper deck in left field.
"It was perfect," Johnson said. "That's what will calm him down. Calmed me down."
Perhaps a textbook example of Desmond's ability to shake off a bad play in field and not let it affect the rest of his game, something he admittedly struggled to do when he was younger.
"I think in the past, what I would've done, I would've let that carry over for days and days," he said. "Now it's like: I make an error, I've got to deal with it and bounce back and keep on moving forward."
The Nationals weren't done inflicting damage on Hoover. Two batters after Desmond went deep, Ramos did it as well, crushing a 438-foot shot to center for his second homer of the afternoon. The catcher stood for a moment at the plate and admired it before rounding the bases, and who could blame him given his history in this ballpark?
It was only a couple of feet from that spot, 11 months ago, where Ramos collapsed in a heap, his right ACL torn and his promising season over. That fact didn't escape him on Saturday.
"I told a couple guys here, this is the ballpark where I got hurt," he said. "But I don't want to talk about that. Turn the page."
Up 7-5 now, but having used all three of his late-inning relievers, Johnson had to leave the game in the hand of the durable and multi-dimensional Stammen. The right-hander, a native of nearby Versailles, Ohio, who had 30 family members in attendance, was up to the challenge. Though he experienced his own moment of panic.
After striking out Choo and Chris Heisey to open the 11th, Stammen got squeezed on a 3-2 pitch to Votto and walked him. Phillips then doubled to center, bringing home Votto, cutting the lead back down to one run and leaving the tying run on second. Up stepped Jay Bruce. Stammen's philosophy against the Cincinnati slugger was simple.
"I was going to throw curveballs until I died," he said. "And hopefully I got him out somehow."
He did. Stammen got Bruce to whiff at his final curveball, ending the game and leaving those 30 family members cheering while 30,000 other fans muttered to themselves on the way out of the stadium.
Back in the visitors clubhouse a few minutes later, the music blared and smiles were abundant. It didn't matter that the Nationals had lost 15-0 the previous night, nor that they nearly blew this game in spectacular fashion.
All that mattered is that they won on this day, and they were now 4-1 for the season, a much better scenario than the alternative.
Said Desmond: "I can't imagine what it would've been like if we had lost."