All is well that ends (Max)well
The Nationals opened the 2009 season at Nationals Park with a little 9th inning drama, trailing 9-6 against the Phillies Ryan Zimmerman hit a two run shot to cut the lead to one but closer Brad Lidge retired the next three batters in order. Flash forward to the 81st and last home game of the season and there were more final inning fireworks–this time the final score was in favor of the Nats, 7-4.
It is only fitting that the Nationals provide something for the fans to cheer about on Fan Appreciation day. The scene was set for an instant classic. It felt like a playoff atmosphere in the bottom of the ninth. Every fan was on their feet, yelling and clapping with their giveaway–the Washington fleece blanket–wrapped around them or high in the air.
“There is no way I could explain how good a feeling that is,” Nationals Interim Manager Jim Riggleman said. “The fans’ excitement, and the players’ excitement speaks for themselves. It’s just indicative of what we have been doing. We have been playing hard. Guys have been battling. That excitement there is what is in store for the future here.”
Rookie Justin Maxwell and the Nationals were down to their final strike with two outs in the bottom of the ninth trailing by one with the bases loaded and closer Francisco Rodriguez on the mound. It was K-Rod, one of the league’s premier closers vs. the 25-year-old Maryland native who entered the game in the bottom of the 8th as a pinch runner.
It was one of the best at-bats of Maxwell’s young career, definitely the most memorable. He watched the first four pitches pass by the plate without moving a muscle. He fouled off the fifth pitch and watched the sixth pitch for ball three to run the count full. He fouled of the next two pitches. It was the ninth and final pitch that Maxwell connected on a 92 mph fastball and drove it into the flowers in left.
“I think the walk-off homer is the best thing in sports — by far,” Maxwell said.
For a split second, it looked like Angel Pagan caught it. But once it was clear it was a home run, the Nationals stormed the field. Maxwell emphatically pumped his right fist as he rounded first base and when he turned for home he took off his helmet and tossed it into the infield. He was bombarded at home plate. A few moments later, the shaving cream pie master John Lannan gave him the celebratory cream pie.
“We all had good at-bats,” Maxwell said. “I was trying to put the ball in play and give us a chance. I know Frankie has good stuff. I just had to put it in play. It worked out for a grand slam. That was the first time I ever faced him. I now know what his slider and changeup look like. He has good stuff. I was in there battling to help the team win.”