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A momentum-changing turn of events?

Sep 5, 2015, 1:49 AM EDT


Jonathan Papelbon was holding court inside the Nationals’ clubhouse Friday night, the room thumping like it hadn’t in a long time after a 5-2, 10-inning victory over the Braves — with an even bigger roar about to be come moments later when the Marlins walked off the Mets in Miami — when the veteran closer was asked if a game like this can carry over and serve as a true momentum swing.

“One hundred percent,” said Papelbon, who has experienced his share of pennant race moments over the last decade. “You know, this time of year is all about momentum. And if we can keep that and carry that throughout the rest of the season, we should be pretty good. I like our chances.”

Make no mistake, the Nationals’ chances still aren’t great. Even with Friday’s wild turn of events, they trail the Mets by 5 games with 28 to play. Their odds of winning the NL East, according to Fangraphs, sits at 20.5 percent (with an additional 1.9 percent chance of a wild card berth).

But in order to pull off a comeback of that magnitude, a ballclub needs to do something dramatic along the way, something that serves as a turning point in a pennant race. We don’t know yet whether this night will qualify. But it’s certainly the kind of night that could do it.

“Like I’ve been saying, we come in here every single day with the attitude to try and win ballgames, and that’s what we did tonight,” Bryce Harper said. “We fought to the end. … It just says a lot about this club and how we’re a family going to fight to the end until the last day.”

The manner in which the Nationals won this game, needing Matt den Dekker’s RBI single with two outs in the ninth to tie it and then Michael Taylor’s moonshot of a 3-run homer in the 10th to end it, was perhaps just as significant as the simple fact they won the game at all. Truth be told, a loss like that to a Braves club that has celebrated victory only once in its last 18 tries, would’ve rivaled any other loss over the last month in terms of disappointment.

The Nationals appeared destined for disappointment after squandering several opportunities to add on anything beyond Harper’s first-inning homer off Julio Teheran. They stranded the bases loaded in the third, then again in the sixth. And then they looked like they were going to waste Yunel Escobar’s leadoff double in the ninth when, after Ian Desmond’s sacrifice bunt moved the runner to third, Wilson Ramos struck out on four pitches and left the game in den Dekker’s hands.

The 28-year-old outfielder — traded by the Mets for Jerry Blevins during the last week of spring training — hasn’t spent much time in D.C. this season, but he has shown a knack for delivering hits at the right moment. Entering Friday night, den Dekker was 4-for-10 as a pinch-hitter, with a home run on his resume. He technically wasn’t a pinch-hitter this time, because he had entered the game in the top of the inning as part of a double-switch designed to put Papelbon in position to pitch two innings. But he hadn’t stepped to the plate at all until that moment, facing hard-throwing Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino.

“I was just trying to take a short stroke on it and not do too much,” den Dekker said. “A guy throwing that hard, you can’t really get too big. You gotta stay short and stay through the middle, and that’s what I did.”

Indeed, den Dekker lined Vizcaino’s 1-0, 98-mph fastball over the shortstop’s head, bringing home the tying run and altering the storyline of this game. Not to mention spoiling the evening for Mets fans who used to root for him.

“Hopefully they weren’t happy,” den Dekker said with a smile.

After Papelbon tossed his second scoreless inning of the night, the Nationals came up to bat again in the 10th with a chance to win it. And they immediately put themselves in position to do it, with Harper lining an opposite-field single off left-hander Matt Marksberry — the 14th time he has reached base in his last 18 plate appearances — and Ryan Zimmerman advancing him to third with his own single off right-hander Brandon Cunniff.

The pitcher’s spot now due up, Matt Williams was down to only a couple remaining choices on his bench: Dan Uggla, Pedro Severino or Taylor, who had been held out of the lineup for the third straight night after his bruised right knee acted up again. Williams was trying to avoid using Taylor at all, but the rookie outfielder had been sending not-so-subtle signals to his manager.

“I want to play,” Taylor said. “I was standing at the bat rack the whole game, trying to get in the game. … I’m just standing close, like stretching and trying to get his attention and things like that.”

So Williams relented, and Taylor stepped to the plate to a growing crescendo from the crowd. Two pitches later, he left everyone in the park jumping for joy when he launched Cunniff’s 1-0 slider high into the night.

The ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. Everybody knew it was deep enough to score the winning run from third. But not until it landed amid a sea of hands in the Red Porch seats beyond the left-center field wall did everybody — including Taylor — know it was a home run.

“I didn’t realize; it went so high,” Taylor said. “Off the bat it felt pretty good, so I thought it had a chance. And then I saw it hanging up a little bit coming around first and was happy it went out.”

This was merely the latest big moment for Taylor, who now has 14 homers (fourth on the roster) and 58 RBI (third on the team), not to mention a .345 batting average with runners in scoring position. All this as a rookie thrust into more regular playing time than anybody anticipated.

“He’s truly a great player,” Harper said. “I think everybody knows he’s going to be an unbelievable player, the older he gets and the more he plays. I’m excited for him and the way he’s going about it right now.”

As he crossed the plate, Taylor was mobbed by teammates, doused with a bucket full of filth and serenaded by fans. The mild-mannered rookie could only smile, soaking in the moment, while everyone else went nuts.

“It was awesome,” right-hander Tanner Roark said. “I don’t have words for it.”

Whether this was merely a nice blip in an otherwise disappointing season or the start of something special down the stretch remains to be seen. The Nationals, though, do know what they could be in for the rest of the way.

“These games from here on out are going to be playoff-type games and playoff-type atmospheres,” Papelbon said, then taking a light-hearted jab at those in the stands. “I got a little bone to pick with some of the fans here tonight. I saw a few of them sitting down. I’m not going to lie. We need to stand on up in those situations. So let’s get that going, you know what I mean? Because this is playoff baseball.”

  1. Joe Seamhead - Sep 5, 2015 at 5:48 AM

    Nice column,Mark. BTW, right about now, bringing in Papelbon is looking like it was a pretty good move, and not only for his pitching. That big old country boy seems to be putting some attitude into the Nattitude!

  2. knoxvillenat - Sep 5, 2015 at 6:39 AM

    Agree with Joe, bringing in Papelbon’s looking better and better. Credit to Williams who I have been critical towards as he made several good moves tonight. Rivero looked lights out (yes I questioned that move initially) and made me eat my words which I was glad to do.

    Go get them tonight Joe Ross and GYFNG!

    • Another_Sam - Sep 5, 2015 at 8:34 AM

      Every move looks better in the light of a few wins. Haha. I’m in. Play ball.

      BTW A dandy piece. Thanks, Mark.

  3. Sam - Sep 5, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    This may turn out to be my detriment, but all of the sudden, I can’t wait to watch the Nationals game tonight and tomorrow and so on… For a while I was dreading them.

  4. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 5, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    The 13-12 comeback win in Atlanta in April was the spur for a hot spell that lasted a couple of weeks. If this works similarly it might be enough to reel in the Mets.

  5. Whynat - Sep 5, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    Calling all Nats fans: Listen to Paps – If you are in town and don’t have ticket to the game Monday, get one. Let’s cheer to make something happen.

  6. janebeard - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    May it please please be the momentum turner we really need. And may the Mets revert to past division-lead-in-September status. GYFNG!

  7. nats106 - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    Just three comments and no one will hear from me for the rest of the weekend.

    Since I’ve been vocal about Matt Williams poor in-game management I’m singing his praises today (although there is still a game to be played this evening). Even the 2 strike bunt by Desmond, which I originally thought was bad and pure luck got me wondering. What does Desmond do when wailing away on a two strike count? Maybe it was a decision steeped in better odds of laying down the bunt even with two strikes.
    Second, so happy for denDekker and MAT for those critical hits. Not only does they seem like good guys who really appreciate playing at the major league level, it’s going to take guys like this to bring this team down the home stretch. Harper and Zimmerman can’t carry this team on their own. (Pete Kozma anybody? Or going back further, Buddy Biancalana?
    Third, go Nats and keep this going! Thursday’s game was great to be at but last night, wish I could have been there.

    Happy Labor day weekend everybody.

    • Section 222 - Sep 5, 2015 at 11:43 AM

      I had to look up the Buddy Biancalana reference. That’s funny.

      I was thinking about the contrast between Thursday and last night too. I attended Thursday’s game too. Great fun for the first few innings, and then a bit of a snoozer. Lots of fans leaving from the sixth inning on, and I can’t really blame them. I’ll bet many fewer left early last night. That was playoff baseball, and a lot of fun to watch even on TV.

  8. nats106 - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    sorry I lied it’s “do they” not does they” good grief

  9. Joe Seamhead - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Who would have thought back in early May that MAT,MdD, Trea Turner, Felipe Rivero, and Jonathan Papelbon ! would be playing such huge parts going into the stretch run?

  10. Eugene in Oregon - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:44 AM


  11. #4 - Sep 5, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    Let me add to the chorus on the approval MW’s moves last night. I will add though they are easier to make when the bench is longer and the bullpen deeper with September call ups.

    • stoatva - Sep 5, 2015 at 11:14 AM

      I spent all of last September on these threads continually noting “everybody gets smarter in September.” It’s still true this year. But after attending that epic win last night I’m in no mood to grumble. Just win tonight, boys.

    • Section 222 - Sep 5, 2015 at 11:44 AM

      Very true. But at least he used the additional bullets rather than hoarding them for the possibility of a 15 inning game. Let’s be clear though — using Pap in the 9th was by the book, not some turning point in the education of MW. Completely different situation than Wednesday night in St. Louis.

      • stoatva - Sep 5, 2015 at 1:26 PM

        Agreed except that, as Matt correctly noted, the point of double switching was to make Papelbon available for two. So I give him full marks for that one.

  12. Doc - Sep 5, 2015 at 11:38 AM

    Anyone know how far Mikey T. hit the ball?

    I assume he still hold the MLB season record for longest.

    • Section 222 - Sep 5, 2015 at 11:51 AM

      Strangely, MAT’s Colorado bomb has been downgraded to 479 feet by ESPN, so it’s not No. 1. I thought it was 493 feet.

      There also seems to be some dispute over whether Harper’s homer last night was his longest of the season or not. I guess this distance tracking is not as exact as we thought.

      • Joe Seamhead - Sep 5, 2015 at 2:35 PM

        Nor do I believe the accuracy of much of the Stats Cast analysis. I expect it will eventually get better, but for now I take a lot of it with an extra grain of salt.





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