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.”