Finding A Way

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If there is a theme that has defined this season for the Washington Nationals, it may just be that no matter the opponent or the type of game, more likely than not the team seems to be able to find a way to end up on the right side of the final score. Following last night’s wild, 13-inning win over the division rival Braves, the Nats are now tied for second place in the Major Leagues with nine walk-off wins, which have come in nearly every manner one could imagine.

Danny Espinosa’s heads up baserunning helped win the game Monday night.

It all began on Opening Day, as Ryan Zimmerman scored on a wild pitch in extra innings. Since then, there have been clutch, game-winning, extra-inning hits by Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper. Ian Desmond has sent the Nats home happy twice, once on a sacrifice fly, and once with a dramatic home run. Of course, there was the crazy, 4-6 fielder’s choice hit by Adam LaRoche against the Giants on July 5th that allowed Harper to score the winning run. Then, Zimmerman scored again to win on a wild pitch just 12 days later against the Mets. But were any of those endings as improbable as the one that took place Monday night?

Werth nearly (effectively) ended the game in the eighth, as his bid for a two-out, tie-breaking grand slam came up a few feet short in the left field corner. LaRoche just missed his own chance for walk-off glory in the 10th inning, his towering fly ball to right field coming to rest in Jason Heyward’s mitt a step in front of the wall. And Werth again nearly sent the crowd into a frenzy in the 11th, backing up Heyward again, who had to jump at the wall in right to corral the ball. And while a big hit nearly decided things on three separate occasions, in the end, it came down to the littlest of little things, which the Nationals got right and the Braves got wrong.

In a season full of walk-offs, Chad Tracy’s may have been the most bizarre yet.

After Danny Espinosa was unable to advance Desmond – the runner at first following a leadoff single, who was forced out at second on a bunt attempt – he more than atoned for his poor small-ball execution. On a check-swing chopper off the plate by Kurt Suzuki, Espinosa raced to second base, and seeing that third baseman Chipper Jones and shortstop Paul Janish had both converged with catcher Brian McCann not covering, he continued all the way to third. That put runners at the corners with just one out, forcing the Braves to pull the infield in. That setup created an entirely different scenario as Chad Tracy stepped to the plate, the winning run just 90 feet away.

While the focus of what happened next will remain on Dan Uggla, Suzuki’s role in causing the moment of confusion needed for Espinosa to score should not be overlooked. Instead of running full bore towards second base, the Nationals catcher stopped just a couple of steps off the bag and waited. By not moving into Uggla’s line, he was able to take away any chance of a tag-and-throw double play. With the speed of Espinosa, that was really Uggla’s only play. In fact, if you watch the video, he never really squares himself to throw home, indicating that the double play was very much on his mind. But once Suzuki stalled, that became impossible, and the game was already over.

Lost in the madness is the fact that the Nationals became the first team in the Major Leagues to 76 wins, moving them 30 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history. They also expanded their NL East lead to 6.0 games over Atlanta, surpassing the 5.5-game advantage the 2005 Nationals held on July 3 for the largest division lead in franchise history since the team moved to Washington.

You don’t get to 30 games over .500 without finding new and creative ways to win. The Nationals have done just that to get where they are today.

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