On Sunday, the Nationals lost to the Brewers because both Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth lost balls in the brutal September sun fields in center and right field at Nationals Park. That frustration punctuated 10 tough, nerve-testing days: Bad breaks and sloppy play took turns foiling the Nats as they went 3-6 and saw their division lead over the Braves shrink from 81
2 games to 41
2. In that span, umpires twice made awful calls that cost them runs in one-run losses. Closer Tyler Clippard picked up two ninth-inning defeats. And Sunday, the Nats missed those two easy flyballs in the sky.
On Monday afternoon, in a tight game, with the Nats ahead 2-1 in the fourth inning against a power-packed Brewers team that had won 25 of its previous 32 games, Werth hit a routine fly to center field that should have ended a two-on, two-out threat.
Instead, Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez looked much like Harper and Werth had the previous day: frozen, befuddled, blinded and helpless. Despite Gomez’s last-second dive, Werth’s fly bounced away for a two-run “double.” In a blink, so to speak, the game changed. After Brewers starter Marco Estrada issued a rattled walk, the Nats pulled a double steal. On the next pitch, Ryan Zimmerman launched a three-run homer into the first row of the deep right-center field bleachers for a 7-1 Nats lead. The rout was on. The Nats won, 12-2. But one flyball, with help from 93 million miles away, was the key.
“The next time I came to bat, their catcher [Jonathan Lucroy] said to me, ‘That seems kind of fair. We got the break yesterday,’ ” Zimmerman said.
In late September, that’s all you want. Your share of the breaks, proof that you’re not fate’s designated patsy for this season. Now, whatever weight the previous 10 days had laid on the Nationals seems to have been lifted. Against two talented and desperate teams — the vast payroll Dodgers and the scalding Brewers — the Nats went 4-3.
“That was a huge game for us. The Brewers have momentum. Their hitters are hot and they smell [Cardinals] blood in the water,” said Zimmerman, who ended with three hits and four RBI to back the victorious pitching of Jordan Zimmermann, now 12-8, who allowed only one run and four hits in 62
“That was a nice laugher to go on the road,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
It was probably more than that. Johnson sees no signs that his team is the kind that could go off the rails in the last days of a pennant race. A couple of bad breaks or tough losses, he claims, “won’t affect this club.” That would make them unique.
This victory was probably the win that makes the Nats’ lead in the National League East unassailable: five up on Atlanta with nine to play. We’ll never be able to prove the point. Partly, it’s math, but mostly it’s momentum and pennant race mystery. But the last piece of the puzzle was a turn in what ballplayers always watch: luck.