WASHINGTON -- For once, Washington Nationals fans got to sit back and watch somebody else’s bullpen melt down.
On Friday night in D.C., the Nats trailed 4-1 after eight innings and looked as though they were headed to a second consecutive loss against the Atlanta Braves, a defeat that would’ve trimmed their lead over the Braves to 7½ games. But Dusty Baker’s squad scratched out three runs in the bottom of the ninth off closer Jim Johnson to send the game into extras, where Daniel Murphy won it with a 10th-inning, walk-off single. The 5-4 victory marked quite the role reversal for a Washington club that’s no stranger to late-inning letdowns.
Even though the Nationals own the game’s fourth-best record, they’ve managed to lose six times already when leading after eight innings, most in the majors. Chalk it up to a balky bullpen whose 5.15 ERA is the worst in baseball. But Friday, it was the Braves’ pen that hemorrhaged.
A day after Johnson pitched a scoreless ninth for his 19th save of the season, the Atlanta closer couldn’t get the job done, allowing four singles and a walk in two-thirds of an inning. He was pulled with two out in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 4-4 after rookie Wilmer Difo's single put runners at the corners. In the 10th inning, Washington got to lefty Ian Krol for three more singles, including Murphy’s winner, a one-out fly ball that landed over drawn-in left fielder Matt Kemp to plate rookie Adrian Sanchez -- who led off the frame with his first big league hit -- for the winning run. After the game, Baker downplayed the notion that getting payback on an opposing bullpen carried with it an extra sense of satisfaction.
“Not really,” Washington’s skipper said when asked if there some sort of karmic satisfaction in doing unto others as others have done to his team. “It was just gratifying for us to get the win. That was a two-game game. Because if we lost that game, we would’ve been seven [games ahead] instead of nine. We’ve got two games to go, and hopefully we can extend this lead and take a break. We’ve had that happen to us many, many times. We’ve done that to a few teams as well, but people seem to forget the times that we do it and just remember the times they do it to us.”
Baker is right in one sense. Including Friday’s theatrics, his club now has seven walk-off victories, tied with the Angels for most in the majors, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. However, not all walk-offs are created equal. While Washington’s opponents have beaten the Nationals six times when trailing after eight innings, the Nats themselves have walked it off just one time when trailing after eight. That came back on May 10 against the Orioles, when Baltimore led by two runs heading into the bottom of the ninth but wound up losing 7-6. As for their dramatic W on Friday, it marked just the eighth time this season that a team has won when trailing by three or more runs entering the ninth inning.
As rare a feat as the colossal comeback was, it’s even rarer in D.C. In fact, the last time the Nationals won a game in which they entered the ninth down by three-plus was June 21, 2011, against the Mariners. It was so long ago that only three Washington players from that game are still on the current roster. Ryan Zimmerman, whose 10th-inning single Friday put the winning run in scoring position, is one of them.
“Three runs in the ninth is not easy,” said Zimmerman, explaining the six-year drought. “That’s a good one.”