ATLANTA — At the end of a 3-week stretch of bad baseball that had seen the Nationals find new soul-crushing ways to lose ballgames on a nightly basis, this sure felt like rock bottom: Down eight runs after two innings, with an unsuspecting rookie pitcher forced to take a beating in his major-league debut for the good of the team.
This was going to be the night that would confirm everyone’s worst fears about the Nationals, a team supposedly destined for greatness that instead was crumbling before our eyes.
But inside the visitors’ dugout at Turner Field, an unexpected emotion swept through players’ minds. For the first time in a long time, they actually felt free of burden, unshackled from the lofty expectations that have hovered over their heads the last three weeks.
“I mean, down eight runs my mentality is like: ‘What’s the worst that can happen?'” center fielder Denard Span said. “This last week, it’s been rough. Down by eight, I think everybody just got loose. … Nobody was giving away at-bats, and we just stayed the course and gave ourselves chances to win those last few innings and got a big hit by Dan.”
Oh, yeah, that “big hit” by Dan. That’s not exactly a worthy adjective. “Big” doesn’t come close to accurately describing what Dan Uggla did in the top of the ninth inning of what would be the greatest comeback in club history.
Having watched his teammates scratch and claw their way back from that early eight-run deficit over the course of three long hours, Uggla stepped to the plate inexplicably representing the go-ahead run. This was only too fitting a scenario, given the back story: The former bust in Atlanta, still being paid more than $12 million by the Braves despite now playing for a division rival, with a chance to cap what already had been a momentous evening at his old home.
This couldn’t actually happen, could it?
Yes. Yes it could.
With a thunderous crack of the bat that echoed throughout Turner Field and probably could be heard loud and clear 639 miles away at Nationals Park, Uggla launched Jason Grilli’s 0-2 fastball deep into the left-field bleachers, giving the Nationals their first lead since the top of the first inning and delivering the final blow in an historic, 13-12 victory that months from now may well be remembered as the game that saved this team’s season.
“It felt pretty good,” Uggla said later. “I can’t lie. That felt good.”
Certainly, it felt good personally for Uggla, who in the 379 calendar days since he had last homered had posted abysmal offensive numbers — .120 batting average, .367 OPS, 45 strikeouts in 148 plate appearances — and been released by two different organizations.
Now, at the end of a night in which he not only hit the game-winning homer but two innings earlier had tripled home two more key runs, Uggla felt both like a big-leaguer again and an integral member of this Nationals roster.
“I was in the hole, and I was coming on deck after he crossed home plate and I just looked at him,” Span said. “I didn’t even say anything. I just looked straight in his eyes. You guys can’t write that any better. A guy that’s been through a lot these last few years … just, good for him.”
Uggla is revered throughout the baseball world, not because of his athletic talents but because of the way he has carried himself throughout a roller-coaster career of ultimate highs and humbling lows. And because of his honesty, which he displayed in full force after this game.
Asked if, as he stood at the plate knowing what a home run would mean, it was hard not to think about the possibility, the 35-year-old second baseman said what professional ballplayers never admit out loud.
“No, not at all,” he replied. “That’s pretty much all I was thinking about. I mean, I was just champing at the bit to get a chance, an opportunity to do something like that.”
Uggla seized the moment as well as was humanly possible, but he was far from the only contributor to this record-setting victory. (The Nationals’ previous biggest come-from-behind win: A 7-run rally against the Yankees on June 17, 2006 at RFK Stadium that preceded Ryan Zimmerman’s first career walk-off homer the next afternoon.)
After watching A.J. Cole surrender those nine runs in a 2-inning debut that mercifully became a footnote at night’s end, the Nationals stormed back in little spurts along the way. Jayson Werth drove home Span in the third. Jose Lobaton launched a 3-run homer in the fifth. Span homered (part of a 5-hit night) in the sixth. Uggla tripled home two more runs in the seventh, scoring moments later on Reed Johnson’s double.
“It’s just great that they came back,” Cole said. “They’re a great team.”
The Nationals’ bullpen, asked to churn out seven innings after Cole’s earlier-than-planned exit, experienced some bumps along the way. Tanner Roark allowed two runs over three-plus innings. Matt Thornton got out of a jam in the sixth. Blake Treinen gave up what looked like a big insurance run in the seventh but then added a scoreless eighth to keep the Nationals within striking distance.
“The fact that we got back to that position is important for us,” manager Matt Williams said. “We tried to stay away from getting too deep in the bullpen. That didn’t happen for us tonight. But we stayed in the game. We had some grind at-bats, some good at-bats tonight that got us on base.”
Even after Uggla’s titanic blast, the Nationals still needed three more outs from Drew Storen to wrap this up. The club’s closer goes through a long and slow process during the course of a game to get himself ready to pitch the ninth, but with his team down 9-1 after two innings, he admitted he could’ve not bothered to go through with the exercise.
Storen, though, decided to follow through, just in case. And as he warmed up in the out-of-view bullpen in the top of the ninth and heard the crack of Uggla’s bat, he looked up just in time to see the ball sailing into the bleachers.
“My adrenaline was pumping so much,” he said, “I had to actually take a moment.”
Storen managed to calm himself back down and take the mound for the bottom of the ninth, pitching around a 1-out walk of A.J. Pierzynski to complete a scoreless frame and put the final bow on this improbable victory.
As Uggla stood by the dugout being interviewed on TV, Max Scherzer raced over and poured chocolate syrup over his teammate’s head.
“We’ve got some crazy dudes in here,” Uggla said. “I’m sure I looked pretty appetizing after all that. I’ve got to get new clothes, a new hat, new gloves and all that. Hopefully that’ll be the last time we do that.”
If the chocolate-syrup bath is reserved only for 8-run comebacks, Uggla may be safe. But if the Nationals can take this unprecedented victory and use it to catapult them to greater things … well, who knows what may still be in store for this team in 2015?
“This could really take us a long way and get us on a good streak, get us in a good spot,” infielder Danny Espinosa said. “To come back from the deficit we were at, to be able to win this game was awesome. I think this will be able to carry us for a little bit.”
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