A night after hitting two solo home runs in a series opening 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, Rick Ankiel struck an even bigger blow. His grand slam in the bottom of the fourth inning turned a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead, and the Washington Nationals went on to beat Atlanta 9-3 in front of 24,326 fans at Nationals Park Tuesday night.
The grand slam was Ankiel’s only hit of the night (he finished 1-for-5), but it was the perfect capstone to a torrid homestand for the veteran pitcher-turned-center fielder. Ankiel entered Tuesday’s game with a .421 on-base percentage in 19 plate appearances during the homestand, while his two Monday night home runs goosed his slugging percentage up to .750. In the short term, Ankiel’s hot streak has been a timely contribution to Washington’s firepower while others have struggled. Most notably, Danny Espinosa has fallen off sharply from the giddy heights of, say, mid-July. The rookie second baseman’s one-out double in the bottom of the third was his first extra-base hit since July 17 (which also, coincidentally, came against the Braves). Between the next day’s 0-for-4 performance against the Houston Astros and the start of Tuesday night’s game, Espinosa –who went 2-for-5 on Tuesday night– had reached base just nine times in 57 plate appearances on four singles, four walks, and once taking first after being hit by a pitch. That worked out to a .161 on-base percentage, while striking out 17 times.
Jayson Werth, who also went 2-for-5 Tuesday night has been hot as well (.440 on-base percentage and 1.011 OPS on the homestand entering the game), and it was he who scored the first run of the game in the bottom of the second inning. Werth, showing the same aggressive baserunning that’s marked his game all season, led off the inning with a single to right and took off for second with Michael Morse at the plate. Morse struck out on a full count, but David Ross’ throw sailed into center field and Werth took third base before scoring on Ian Desmond’s sacrifice fly.
That lead only lasted until the top of the third inning, when John Lannan struggled for the only significant period in his 6.2 innings. Facing the bottom third of the Atlanta order, Lannan gave up singles to Ross and Jose Constanza. After Ross was retired on a failed sacrifice by starter Derek Lowe, Michael Bourn tied the game with a double down the right field line. Lowe himself came across when the next batter, Martin Prado, grounded out to Espinosa. The Braves increased their lead to 3-1 in the top of the fourth when Alex Gonzalez singled with one out, went to second on a single by Brooks Conrad, advanced to third on a deep fly ball by Ross, and scored when Constanzo drove a single over the leaping Ryan Zimmerman and into left field.
But in the fourth, it all fell apart for Lowe, who has been a consistent disappointment for Atlanta since signing a four-year, $60 million contract with the Braves after the 2008 season. On Tuesday night, his sinker wasn’t as effective as it should have been, and the Nats finally got the measure of him. After Jonny Gomes walked with one out, Desmond pulled a sinker into left field for a single. Wilson Ramos fouled off a changeup before lining a sinker the other way to load the bases. Lannan then chopped a ground ball to first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose throw home to force Gomes was much too high and forced Ross to come well in front of the plate to make the catch. Gomes finished the job by taking out Ross’ legs with his own. It was a violent, but legal, play by Gomes and it cut the margin to 3-2. Then Ankiel watched two cutters miss high and outside before driving a sinker into the storage area behind the center field wall. It happens that quickly sometimes.
Lowe made it out of the fourth without further damage to his ERA, but he only lasted two batters into the fifth. Left with no choice but to hope that his sinker would suddenly sink, Lowe kept throwing it, and the Nationals kept hitting. Specifically, Gomes lead off the fifth by tripling down the left field line and Desmond treated another thigh-high sinker with the contempt it deserved, lining it into the first row of the left field seats to make it 8-3.
Michael Morse rounded off the home run derby in style with a long home run into the first row of the right center field balcony off Christhian Martinez to provide the final margin of victory in the bottom of the sixth. But the story once again was Ankiel, who, while he is not likely to be back with the club in 2012, has given the club some very fine service in center field (a below-average bat, perhaps, but his defense has not been close to the disaster many feared it would be). On a team that is simultaneously building toward the future and struggling to put its offense together, performances like Ankiel’s on this homestand are so often the difference between winning and losing, progress and frustration.