Apr 10, 2010, 11:29 PM EDT
NEW YORK — The ball shot off Rod Barajas’ bat, and as it made a beeline toward shallow left field, the crowd of 33,044 at Citi Field let out a roar, confident the Mets had just rallied to tie (or perhaps beat) the Nationals.
And then Willie Harris came charging in and dove to his front and to his right, sticking out his glove in a last-ditch effort to make a backhanded catch that would either save a 4-3 victory for the Nats or ruin it altogether.
In that instant — as Harris hung in the air with glove outstretched, as Barajas ran toward first base with an eye on the play, as Matt Capps spun around on the mound waiting to see whether he’d just earned the save or the loss, as Jim Riggleman leaned over the dugout rail to get a better look, as an injured Ryan Zimmerman watched on a clubhouse TV — a thousand thoughts came to everyone’s mind. Amazing how much information the brain can ponder in a split-second.
Harris had just moved to left field at the start of the ninth inning, having played the previous three innings at third base when Zimmerman departed with a tight hamstring. The Nats’ super-utilityman has an uncanny ability to bounce around from position to position and make it look easy, but he feels most comfortable in left field. Perhaps that’s why he’s made so many highlight-reel plays from that spot, including a famous one against the Mets at Shea Stadium two years ago that saved a similar nip-and-tuck ballgame.
When Barajas came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs, Nationals coaches had Harris move a bit to his right, knowing New York’s backup catcher tends to pull the ball.
The fans seated around the left-field corner had been on Harris’ case from the moment he took his position at the beginning of the inning. Some players, like Nyjer Morgan, shout things back at hecklers as a defense mechanism. Harris has a different tact. He keeps his mouth shut. But inside his head, he’s got his response all ready.
“When you have 5,000-10,000 people out there calling you all kinds of names and saying all types of things which aren’t nice, you’ve got to find some way to make them hush,” Harris said. “In my mind, I’m saying: ‘You better not hit that ball to me.’ That’s what I’m thinking. That’s what gets me going. That’s my own little thing that gets me going when I’m on defense.”
So as the ball screamed off Barajas’ bat, Harris realized this was his opportunity to silence the stadium. But did he have enough time to get to the ball and make the catch? And if not, what else might happen?
As he started in and toward his right, Harris made up his mind.
“Willie, you’ve got to catch this ball,” he said. “At least give it your best effort. If the ball falls in front of me, we lose the game, or we at least tie it and we may have a play at the plate with David Wright. But for the most part, it’s a tie game and we’re going extra innings. So I took it upon myself. It was pretty much a gamble.”
Trotting toward first base and hoping his line drive would fall in for the game-winning hit, Barajas couldn’t help but think of all the times he’d seen Harris come up big in just this type of situation.
As much as he wanted to believe Harris wouldn’t make the play, Barajas knew better.
“Every time I’ve played against the Nationals — whatever team Willie Harris is on — if he’s in the outfield he always makes a good play,” he said. “He’s always around the ball. That’s just who is he. He’s a good defender. Anybody else on the team, there’s a good chance that ball is falling.”
Inside the Nationals’ dugout, players and coaches alike were up along the railing, trying to get a good look at the play. Seemingly everyone had the same initial thought when they saw the ball was headed toward left field.
“If you want it hit somewhere, it’s gotta be at Willie,” said John Lannan, who was hoping to earn the first win by a Nats starter after five solid innings.
“Willie, that’s what he does,” said Tyler Clippard, who recorded seven strikeouts in three innings of brilliant relief.
Or, as center fielder Nyjer Morgan put it succinctly when asked what he thought when the ball came off the bat: “Caught.”
Inside the clubhouse, Zimmerman was getting treatment on his tight hamstring, a nagging injury that forced him out of the game three innings earlier. The Gold Glove third baseman isn’t accustomed to watching the final moments of a tense game on television, and he wasn’t all that comfortable with his vantage point.
“I feel helpless,” he said.
The moment Barajas made contact, the Mets’ SNY broadcast team exulted, leaving Zimmerman disconsolate.
“The announcers were yelling,” he said. “I thought the game was over already.”
From his perch in the dugout, Riggleman was hoping he’d made the right decision minutes earlier to move Harris from third base to left field and remove Josh Willingham from the game. For defensive purposes, the move made perfect sense. But now Riggleman was fielding a lineup minus his 3-4-5 hitters. Zimmerman was out with the hamstring injury. Adam Dunn had been pulled for a pinch-runner in the eighth. And now Willingham was out.
Had the Mets tied the game and sent it to extra innings, the Nats would have been sending Cristian Guzman, Harris, Adam Kennedy and Alberto Gonzalez to the plate in the 10th.
Riggleman loves the act of managing, the chess match that plays out over three hours. “I love it,” he said this spring. “It makes my day.”
The ninth inning today, however, was no picnic for Riggleman.
“When you’re scrambling guys around as much as we did today, you never feel too at ease,” he said. “You run out of players, basically. As a manager, one thing you hate to do is get to the ninth inning and not have any players left. We could’ve been real close to that.”
All the more reason to want Harris to make that play.
Harris did make the play. Fully extended, his glove perhaps less than a foot off the ground, he hauled it in. The crowd let out a groan. The broadcasters went bananas. The Nats poured onto the field in celebration.
Harris and Morgan approached each other and bumped shoulders in mid-air. A stream of teammates offered up high-fives.
It goes down as a simple 4-3 victory for the Nationals, one that will get lost among plenty more by the time this season ends.
But on this afternoon, in that instant before Harris made the catch that saved the game, it had everybody at Citi Field on the edge of their seats, thoughts racing through their minds, a 3-hour, 13-minute baseball game having come down to one final, make-or-break moment.
“It was fun,” Clippard said. “It’s fun to win a game like that. Especially when it comes down to bases loaded and two outs. In New York. Against a division rival. It was fun. A lot of fun.”
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