Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Nationals (49-53) started the game with lucky, and ended it with good as Bryce Harper hit his first walk-off home run to give the Nationals a 9-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates (60-40).
With their first win in 11 days, the Nationals avoided a four-game sweep and ended a six-game losing streak.
The struggling Nationals offense started catching lucky breaks right from the beginning of the game, as Harper was hit by a pitch to lead off the first inning. Steve Lombardozzi – who was a star of the day with two inning-ending diving catches and a double in the fifth inning – followed with a perfect bunt single to advance Harper.
The luck kicked in when Harper was caught in a run down after making too wide a turn around second base, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez dropped the throw, allowing Harper to score.
Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Denard Span all singled, the Pirates committed two more errors, and when the dust settled, the Nationals held a 4-0 lead, their first lead in five days.
Thanks to a solid, though not the prettiest, pitching performance from Gio Gonzalez, the Nats held that lead for much of the game.
Over five and two-thirds innings, Gonzalez gave up eight hits and walked four in the process of giving up three earned runs. He struck out a career-high 11 batters for the third time this season and the fifth time in his career.
Gonzalez’s pitch count was high from the get-go, and a shortened outing from their starter is not exactly what the Nationals needed on the day before a double header when their bullpen has been “in shambles,” as manager Davey Johnson described it a few days ago.
The bullpen nearly lived up to Johnson’s description, as the team watched a four-run lead evaporate in the ninth inning.
After Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard each pitched scoreless innings, Clippard on six pitches, Rafael Soriano came in to close the game out in a non-save situation.
Soriano gave up back-to-back walks, then a double to Jordy Mercer to cut the Nats lead to three runs. He struck out Andrew McCutchen, but proceeded to give up an RBI-single to Russell Martin.
Bench coach Randy Knorr was calling the shots in the ninth inning because Johnson had been ejected in the fifth for the first time this season after arguing what appeared to be an erroneous strike zone. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was also ejected, during the seventh inning.
Knorr decided to take the ball from his $28 million, 12-year veteran, and put it in the hands of rookie Ian Krol.
“In the past I’ve seen [Soriano] pitch, and when it’s not a save opportunity he doesn’t have the same effect when he’s pitching,” Knorr said. “He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate, a couple lefties were coming up, and I like the way Krol throws the ball. I figure if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”
The bold move to go with somebody else ended favorably for Knorr and the Nationals.
Though Krol blew the save by allowing his runners inherited from Soriano to score on a Josh Harrison single, he stayed in line for the win by getting two strikeouts to end the inning.
Enter: Harper. In a do or die moment for the Nationals, with two outs and Kurt Suzuki on base, Harper hit a game winning home run to left-center field.
“You could just feel it in the dugout,” Krol said. “You know something special is going to happen when you put him in that kind of situation.”
Harper’s ability to rise to the occasion, as he is prone to doing in similarly big moments, saved the Nationals from what had the potential to be a completely demoralizing loss.
“That would have been tough to overcome,” Knorr said. “To tell you how it feels, just walk into the clubhouse right now. You’d have thought we won the World Series or something.”
The Nationals were certainly in need of a pick-me-up after their recent string of losses accented by frustratingly deplorable play. With any luck, the Nationals can take motivation from this win into their coming series with the Mets as they look to avoid being demoted into fourth place in the NL East.