WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had one of their biggest games of the year. In a showdown with big implications on the division race, they faced the Braves on Monday night at Nationals Park, winning, 5-4, on an infield single by Chad Tracy in the bottom of the 13th inning. It was Washington's ninth walk-off victory of the season. The Nationals are 76-46, six games ahead of the Braves in the NL East.
"It was big-time win," said Danny Espinosa, who scored the winning run in a game that was delayed 56 minutes at the start due to rain. "You don't want to play that many innings against these guys. It's so tight in our division. The momentum is on our side right now."
The game was tied at 4 when the Nationals rallied against reliever Cristhian Martinez. With runners on first and third with one out, pinch-hitter Tracy hit a hard ground ball to second baseman Dan Uggla, who dove for the ball, bobbled it, grabbed it and was thinking about going for the double play instead going home to get Espinosa. But Uggla held onto the ball, allowing Espinosa to score the winning run.
"He hit me a tough ground ball. I just tried to throw the ball home. I couldn't get the thing out of my glove," Uggla said. "I figured that any ground ball anywhere, they're going to take a chance, and he's going to make us make a play on him. He got a good jump, and I just couldn't get it out of my glove.
It also helped that Kurt Suzuki, who was the runner on first, froze on the play, which distracted Uggla.
"He was thinking he could get two on a ball hit that hard," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "His option was to tag Suzuki and then get the runner. If he goes to first base and then they tag him, the run scores."
Said Espinosa, "I was going on contact. I saw him dive. It was going to be a pretty tough play to try and throw me out. But I thought I had a good chance once I saw him dive. I thought I could beat it."
The Nationals won the game at the right time, as they were out of relief pitchers once Tracy pinch-hit for Craig Stammen. Had the game gone further, starter Edwin Jackson was prepared to pitch. Jackson was throwing in the bullpen in the 13th inning.
"I was not going to use Edwin Jackson in this game if at all possible," Johnson said. "The only way I was going to use him was if we didn't score and we had a runner in scoring position, but I wasn't going to hit him."
Jackson said he felt fine to pitch and didn't volunteer for bullpen duties to score points with the organization.
"I wasn't doing it for heroism. The bullpen was done," Jackson said. "There is a game we could possibly win. It was definitely a game they don't want to throw a position player. It's not a giveaway game. I guess I was the next-best option to legitimately have a chance to win."
It was a game that saw starter Jordan Zimmermann struggle on the mound, lasting five innings and allowing four runs on eight hits. He threw 102 pitches. The right-hander acknowledged that he was too excited at the start of the game.
Zimmermann had a tough time stopping Jason Heyward. In the first inning, Heyward singled to left field, driving in Martin Prado, to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead.
But the Nationals came back and took the lead by scoring four runs off right-hander Tim Hudson in the bottom of the inning. Bryce Harper drove in the first run with a single to left, scoring Jayson Werth.
Harper would later score on a groundout by Adam LaRoche. But it was Ian Desmond who had the biggest blow, hitting a two-run homer over the left-field wall to give Washington a 4-1 lead. It was his 18th home run of the season, setting a franchise record for shortstops. Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera held the record, with 17 homers in 2003.
Washington's lead didn't last long. In the fourth inning, Atlanta made it a two-run game, as Freddie Freeman scored on an infield single by Paul Janish.
An inning later, Heyward came through again. This time it was a two-run homer over the right-field wall to tie the score at 4.
"I felt fine, but I didn't pitch very well. I was terrible," Zimmermann said. "I left a lot of balls up in the zone and I didn't have very good command. I threw a few good pitches, and then they didn't swing at [them]. I've got to give a lot of credit to the bullpen for throwing eight innings and kind of picking up the slack that I had left out there. The offense gave me four runs of support in the first. I just couldn't hold it down tonight.
"The first inning, I was a little more amped up and I was rushing to the plate a little bit. But after that, I felt like I settled in. I was just up in the zone and [living] up in the zone, [and when you do that] you're going to get crushed."
Hudson was dealing by the time the Braves tied the score. After the first inning, Hudson allowed four hits in the next five innings. The Nationals had runners in scoring position twice after the second inning against the veteran righty.
Washington's best chance to score against Hudson again came in the sixth inning. With runners on first and second with nobody out, Espinosa struck out, Suzuki flied out to center fielder Michael Bourn, and pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina struck out to end the threat.
The Nationals had another chance to score at least one run in the next inning. Werth led off against Hudson and doubled off the third-base bag. Hudson was taken out of the game in favor of Jonny Venters, and after Werth advanced to third on a sacrifice by Harper and Ryan Zimmerman was walked intentionally, Michael Morse hit into a double play to end the inning.
The Nationals let another opportunity go by the board in the eighth. They had the bases loaded with one out against lefty Eric O'Flaherty. Tyler Moore entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Drew Storen, and popped up to first baseman Freeman. Werth followed and worked the count to 3-2 before popping up to Prado in left field.
The Nationals ended up leaving 12 runners on base, but they won a big game against their biggest rival this season.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.