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The final moment of a wild game

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.”

  1. niggledork - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:43 PM

    Great, great recap Mark…

  2. Anonymous - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:44 PM

    this is a damn good story. I'll subscribe

  3. Anonymous - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:45 PM

    Defense won this one. Excellent positioning in the outfield as the number of runners in the 9th grew to bases loaded. Also, Clippard looked sharp out there today.

  4. Anonymous - Apr 10, 2010 at 11:46 PM

    Awesome catch and a great piece about it! Let's hope they can build on this momentum!

  5. Greg P - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:10 AM

    The Mets must HATE Willie Harris!

  6. Anonymous - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:11 AM

    What an amazing recap, Mark. You are kicking the hell out of all other Nats reporters right now. Keep doing work man this is fabulous. If I wasn't a broke college kid right now, i'd subscribe to your site in a heartbeat. Keep up the great work.

  7. tappy - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:12 AM

    Nyjer always gives the best quote!

  8. JayB - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:17 AM

    I agree…great writing style and substance….love the quotes….you are worth every cent Mark. Looks to me like this team is different and as much as Riggs can annoy you with his Mock and Guz love…he sure is doing a nice job pulling all the right strings and keeping 25 men in the game.

  9. JayB - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:39 AM

    Oh and Clippard won that game more than anyone. Riggs showed why he is a better manager than Acta….Manny would have had his 7th then 8th inning guys in there and never would have stuck with Clippard that long….Last year that at this time that was the death of this team….

  10. randomdude2228 - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    Brilliant article Mark… that was great. The way you set it up… well written. Go Nats!

  11. Doc - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:58 AM

    Hey MarkMeister, I'd have preferred to have been at the game. But your summary was more than worth the price of admission. Great job! Mea culpa on underestimating Harris' value to the team.

  12. cadeck13 - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:07 AM

    Oh my gosh, I watched the game live and now reading this I was completely taken in again! When does the movie version come out? This is probably the best recap of a game I have ever read. Kudos Mr. Z. Clippard was outstanding – 7 strikeouts and he even tacked on a base hit up the middle to help himself! Love this kid and his geeky glasses (no offense intended-really love them).

  13. Suicide Squeeze - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:22 AM

    You sure can spin a hell of a yarn, Mark — even when we already know the story AND the ending. Kudos!

  14. NattyDelite! - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:28 AM

    Mark. Wow. I got tingly just reading this recap! And that's after I watched the play online.This totally justifies my subscription. Awesome.

  15. Anonymous - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:35 AM

    Others are correct – that's a wonderfully written story, a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, while everyone has been celebrating the win, and Willie Harris' spectacular play, I've seen very little coverage of the fact that Matt Capps has essentially blown two saves, especially today. That great play would not have been necessary had not Capps loaded the bases with his lack of control. Clippard was terrific, and I know that baseball orthodoxy required Riggleman to bring in his closer for the ninth inning. But given how well Clippard was pitching, I wonder if it would have made more sense to just let him keep going, and to bring in Capps if Clippard showed signs of tiring in the ninth. A win is a win, and with Nats, we'll take it. But the Capps situation bears watching.

  16. Positively Half St. - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    Great stuff, Mark. Great game.

  17. Uncle Atom - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    Beautiful recap Mark. Game endings like this remind us why we became fans of baseball in the first place. Bravo!

  18. sjm105 - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    Really well written, I just sent it to my son in NYC who is a huge Nationals fan with a Mets partial game plan. This might be the best baseball piece I have read, extremely entertaining even though I watched the game and thought I had a handle on what was happening. Thank you!!

  19. phil dunn - Apr 11, 2010 at 2:05 AM

    I am not impressed with Matt Capps as the closer. He has one pitch and he can't get it over the plate. Willie Harris should have gotten the save. Capps is a downgrade from Hanrahan.

  20. Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_for_Me - Apr 11, 2010 at 2:37 AM

    Mad Capps is an upgrade for this reason alone:He's in teh bigs.Gascanrahan is in Bradenton of the Florida Class A. Yes, Class A.Besides, Mad Capps is the perfect closer for a guy who likes his bourbon with a little Maalox at the end of games. Like me.

  21. Janner33 - Apr 11, 2010 at 2:54 AM

    Perhaps the best blow by blow account of a baseball play I've ever read. From what, at least 5 different perspectives? Kudos Mark! I live in the Bahamas and have been a fan since the Expos days. Obviously i don't get to see many live games, but reading your blog is the next best thing! Going to try and subscribe now.

  22. Aeoliano - Apr 11, 2010 at 3:40 AM

    Love the story … guess old Willie still owns the silver elvis wig. Or is it Clippards? Nyjer ought to go back and get a second one so that you can have more than one player of the week.

  23. Michael J. Hayde - Apr 11, 2010 at 4:02 AM

    I just came from Kilgore's gamer, which I thought was excellent. This one leaves it in the shade. You are one helluva writer! Keep this up and I'll just have to make another donation at the All-Star break.

  24. Mr. Doggett - Apr 11, 2010 at 4:19 AM

    If Harris keeps having games like this, shouldn't he earn a permanant job in right field?? I mean, at least until someone else takes it from him? Who else is there?

  25. Section 222 - Apr 11, 2010 at 4:52 AM

    I somehow managed to resist the temptation to check the blogs this afternoon since I knew I could watch the game on tape delay. I figured I could always fast forward if things got bad. What a treat to enjoy a tight game and a fantastic finish, made even better by being able to read this tremendous piece of sports-writing immediately after. Thanks Mark.

  26. cadeck13 - Apr 11, 2010 at 5:29 AM

    I just read it again and I still managed to get caught up in it all over! What a play, what piece from all those angles! Wow! Now I want to dream about Nats Town taking over Phillies Opening Day and Nats beating them!!! Since most of us from Nats Town won't be there Mon I'll settle for us beating them 🙂

  27. Hendo - Apr 11, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    I was at the game. I'm still amazed.Agreed with the other posters, Mark… you touched all the bases on this one. Outstanding job.

  28. Anonymous - Apr 11, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    What a dandy read, Mr. Z. Thank you. [Soon I'll figure out how to stop being another Mr. Anon.]

  29. 1stBaseCoach - Apr 11, 2010 at 11:15 AM

    Riggleman won the game

  30. JayB - Apr 11, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    I agree coach but more for use of Clippard than any other move. Put it above but to me it is really the biggest chance this year so far….No more Acta manage (paint) by the numbers use of the bull pen…..Riggs stayed with the hot hand for 10 batters and let Clippard Hit…you know Acta would have had Saul in there in the 7th last year.

  31. JayB - Apr 11, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    Now it is time to make roster moves. Mock MUST be the guy removed from the 25 man to make room for Livo….Mock just does not get it on so many levels. Martin should come up when they need another starter and then Olsen if he earns it to replace Bergmen if he keeps getting lit up. Stamen has earned a longer stay.

  32. Mama B - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    What a great read! Thanks so much for making baseball come alive in your recap. Maybe a book in the off-season?

  33. Anonymous - Apr 11, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    I didn't get a chance to watch the game yesterday but I feel I was there after reading your story. I agree with the others: This is sports writing at its best. I look forward to your stuff the rest of the season. I'll be subscribing. I love free enterprise and I do believe you get what you pay for. I am glad you took the risk to start this thing and I hope it works out long term.

  34. Richard in Bethany - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:11 PM

    MARK-GREAT PIECE OF WRITING! *##@&&* To those who spent their whole Spring moaning about us keeping the 2 WILLIES! Thank God for the great judgement of both Riggs and Rizzo. They know a lot more than than the negative "experts".I for one, am REAL happy to have our own team again–and I go back to Griffith Stadium days! Thanks again Mark–U DA Man!!

  35. natsfan1a - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    Wait. The Mets broadcasters are homers? Gosh, Mets fans must hate that. :-D—The moment Barajas made contact, the Mets' SNY broadcast team exulted, leaving Zimmerman disconsolate."The announcers were yelling, I thought the game was over already," he said.

  36. natsfan1a - Apr 11, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    Oh, and I agree with the others re. the tremendous Rashomon write-up.Mr. Anon (@6:11), you should be able to type your moniker into the Name box of the Name/URL option without entering a URL.

  37. FOTB - Apr 12, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Priceless game. No doubt one of many to come this season.Priceless story, Zuck. No doubt one of many to come this season.





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