One of the spoils a walk-off victory is that the winning team doesn't have to harp on why a late-inning rally was even needed in the first place.
Such was the case in the Nationals' 5-4 win over the Phillies on Sunday night, which for most of the ninth inning looked like it was going to be a disappointing 4-3 loss because of Maikel Franco's tie-breaking solo home run off Jonathan Papelbon. With the Nats Park crowd booing as Franco rounded the bases, it appeared the beleaguered closer's struggles were going to take center stage yet again.
"My emotions were: ‘OK, Pap. We gave up one. Let’s not give up any more.’ Because we can come back," manager Dusty Baker said.
Fortunately for Papelbon and the Nats, Jayson Werth came through with a two-run game-ending single in the bottom of the frame, which spared the 34-year-old reliever his third loss of the season and, in all likelihood, another round of criticism.
“Totally bad executed pitch," Papelbon said of the home run, the second he's yielded this season. "My opinion most major league baseball players should hit that ball out. It was a very poorly executed pitch.”
If you went by save numbers alone, it'd be fair to wonder why Papelbon's has faced scrutiny this year: He's saved 16-of-18 games, helping Washington to own third-best percentage in that in the majors in that category. However, he's found a way to make nearly all of his appearances more interesting than he or the Nats would like them to be. Opposing hitters are hitting .266 against him — only three full time closers have higher averages against them, per ESPN.com— and he's allowed base runners in 17 of his 25 outings. So even when he's credited with saves, he's seemingly had to work his way out of jams more often than not.
“That’s the life of my role," he said. "You’re not a starter where you have the opportunity to maybe go out there and feel your way through a ball game. Give up a run here and then take one back, you don’t have that luxury. [In] my role, one pitch, one mistake could be the difference in the ball game.”
Papelbon's high-wire act has been mostly sustainable, but his roughest moments have always come against his old team. Since the Nats acquired Papelbon last July, he's 2-2 with two blown saves and a 7.27 ERA over 8 2/3 innings against the Phillies, not to mention last season's infamous dugout confrontation with Bryce Harper (which has apparently earned him a potential new nickname with teammates).
“I really can’t [explain it]," he said of his struggles against the Phils. "I don’t know, that’s just baseball.”
But unlike Papelbon's previous hiccups, his teammates not only got him off the hook, but they helped earn him his first win of the season.
“That’s what makes a good team," Papelbon said. "Guys are going to have to pick up each other and I’m going to have to pick up guys. I’m going to be needed to be picked up some nights."