HOUSTON — The Washington Nationals stepped inside Minute Maid Park on Monday evening and, in a lot of ways, stared directly at their own past. Swaths of seats went unoccupied as the smallest announced crowd in the park’s 12-plus year history came through the gates. The piercing sound of a baby’s cry sliced through the dull murmur that hung over a game with pennant-race implications.
The Houston Astros are a woebegone franchise these days, a doormat for the rest of the National League. Trades decimated their roster, shipping away most of their major league talent and replacing it with the mostly untested and unproven from their minor league system. The Nationals have been there. They’ve moved past it. They’re contending.
But this was the team the Nationals found themselves on the brink of losing to Monday night. The team that battled them to the 11th inning, that the Nationals allowed to hang around as they produced miscue after miscue, before ultimately falling 5-4 in calamitous fashion.
The music played in the visitors’ clubhouse as Monday inched into Tuesday, but even the Nationals knew the tightrope they’d almost fallen from. Even though all that ultimately mattered was the ‘W’ etched into the box score, they knew one of the main reasons they’d come away with a victory was that they had the good fortune of having this specific opponent.
“The outcome is still the same, how we wanted it,” said right-hander Edwin Jackson, who was solid but inefficient in 5 ⅓ innings of work that required 106 pitches and featured eights strikeouts and two walks. “We’ll take a win. Whether it’s good, bad, ugly, however. A win is a win. An ugly win is a better than good loss.
“We had a lot of games where we played great and came up with a loss. We’ll get a win anyway we can.”
They were fortunate that the 36-74 Astros, winners of just three games since the All-Star break, reared their heads in the top of the 11th, botching a bunt from Kurt Suzuki so badly the caliber of play on the field began to resemble the rest of the minor league atmosphere.
Fortunate to see Wilton Lopez and Steve Pearce collide on the right side of the mound with third baseman Matt Downs leaping over them as all three attempted to field Suzuki’s bunt. Fortunate that Pearce then decided to throw wildly to first base and, as Roger Bernadina began motoring around the bases, that Brian Bogusevic decided to do the same toward home plate.
“Once it dropped and they crashed, I said, ‘Oh, baby!’” Suzuki said. “And I just started running.”
When the play, one of the more apt ways to sum an Astros season gone so horribly awry, was over, Bernadina was safe at home as the go-ahead run despite blowing through third base coach Bo Porter’s stop sign. Suzuki was on third. The Nationals had another slim lead to hold.
“Everything conceivable that could go wrong went wrong,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who questioned his pitchers’ choices to rely more heavily on their offspeed and breaking pitches. He also lamented Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard’s seeming inability to throw strikes out of the bullpen and called the victory a “character builder.”
“They gave us one by messing the bunt up and then airmailing it over the catcher, and [Craig Stammen) was able to hold on, barely.”
Johnson then paused, as if he could make himself stop reliving all of his team’s mistakes over the course of previous four hours. “Enough about this game,” he said with a dismissive wave.
“It’s a win,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be pretty. We bent a lot but we didn’t break. That’s the good news.”
The opportunities squandered were easy to find.
The Nationals tallied 12 hits off starter Dallas Keuchel and yet, when he exited, had only plated four runs. They recorded outs on two of the first three batters in the eighth, yet they still watched as Storen walked the bases loaded and went to a 3-0 count on J.D. Martinez before giving up a missile flyout to center.
They saw Clippard hit a batter, walk a batter and serve up a game-tying RBI double to blow his fourth save of the season, before finally reverting to his fastball and getting out without further damage.
And, ultimately, thanks to the dysfunction and disarray of their opponent, won their 66th game of the season.
“We’re out there everyday just knowing we’re going to win,” Clippard said. “We have that winning mentality right now. No matter if we’re up, down, whatever. Any situation that we’re in, we feel confident that we’re either going to come back or hold the lead. We feel like we’re going to win every night. It’s a nice feeling.”