WASHINGTON — A bunt, a throw and an opening.
That’s all it took Monday afternoon for the Washington Nationals, a team with history and the long California shadows closing in around them, to break out of their offensive malaise and snatch a season-saving 4-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
Specifically, it was a surprisingly good bunt and a surprisingly bad throw. Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos dropped it down with two strikes in the top of the seventh inning with runners at first and second and nobody out, and Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who fielded the ball, threw late to third, just inches out of the reach of Pablo Sandoval and away into the Giants bullpen. Ian Desmond scored from second and Bryce Harper all the way from first, and the complexion of a series had changed.
Of course, it wasn’t the first dramatic bunt by a catcher in the Major League Baseball postseason. In 2003, the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics played to a 4-4 stalemate into the 12th inning of Game 1. With two outs and Eric Chavez at second base, Scott Hatteberg walked. After Chavez stole third and Hatteberg moved up on defensive indifference, the Sox had pitcher Derek Lowe intentionally walk Terrance Long to bring up catcher Ramon Hernandez.
On an 0-1 count, Hernandez spied the third baseman Bill Mueller playing back and dropped a bunt down — a two-out, bases-loaded bunt — and won the game.
While Ramos’ bunt wasn’t an improvisation, and did not deliver a walk-off win, it was nearly as much of a surprise. He hadn’t laid down a successful sacrifice bunt all year. In fact, he hadn’t bunted a runner over since 2011. And yet, even after looking quite uncomfortable in taking a pair of strikes on which he bluffed at bunting and pulled back, Ramos squared around and laid down an imperfect sacrifice in a two-strike count.
In that particular situation, batters are instructed to bunt the ball squarely to the third basemen. By pushing the ball away from both the pitcher and catcher, such a bunt forces the defender to leave the base to make the play, eliminating the chance of a force on the lead runner. But Ramos’ bunt was back at Bumgarner and just to the first base side, right at his throwing hand.
It was just enough of an opportunity for the Giants to tempt fate.
“We just need one break,” said pitcher Drew Storen after the game. “It’s been a tough couple games to start and we got our break. Now it’s just a matter of building on it and we live to see another day.”
After the game, Bumgarner refused to lay blame for the decision to go to third, rather than to first for the easy out. But his catcher, Buster Posey, owned up.
“Yeah, I told him to throw it to third,” said Posey after the game. “I probably should have taken the out at first. I just thought the way it came off the bat, we had a shot.”
The play at first was an easy one — a gifted out from a slow runner who had no chance to beat it out. Had Bumgarner simply made that play, he would have faced second and third with one out and Asdrubal Cabrera (2-11, 3 K), coming to the plate with the pitcher, Doug Fister, due up behind him.
The Nationals were 1-for-18 in the series with runners in scoring position. They hadn’t scored in 21 innings — not in the previous six innings on a sunny, Monday afternoon in Northern California and not for the final 15 innings of what turned into a frigid, seemingly season-ending defeat Saturday night in Washington. But instead of reminding them of that, of simply taking the out and leaving the pressure square on the shoulders of a team that hadn’t proven the ability to shrug it off yet, the Giants blinked.
“He tried to do a little too much on that play,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy of his star hurler. “You take the out.”
After all, the runs were the first scored against Bumgarner in 22 postseason innings. And, as a result, the Giants lost a playoff game for the first time in 11 tries.
Bumgarner was coming off the Wild Card performamce last week in which he shutout the Pirates.
“This is big to get one off of Bumgarner,” Adam LaRoche said after the game. “That was a big hurdle there.”
The Nationals are, on paper, clearly a better team than the Giants. They hit 20 more home runs, stole 45 more bases and reached base at a higher clip. Washington had a team ERA nearly a half-run lower, striking out 77 more batters while walking 37 fewer.
And now the Giants have burned their best starter, the shadow that had loomed throughout Games 1 and 2. The Nationals can turn to Gio Gonzalez, their top postseason starter of 2012 on Tuesday, squaring off with Ryan Vogelsong, who has struggled his way to the finish line in the regular season, going 0-4 with a 5.53 ERA in September. Gonzalez was 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA over the same final five starts.
“We feel OK,” said LaRoche about if the team is feeling better after getting a win. “We don’t feel great because anything can happen.”
That little sliver of daylight, the distance of space between Sandoval’s glove and the tailing, off-balance fastball out of Bumgarner’s hand, has turned into a wide-open window for the Nationals. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.