HOUSTON -- The Nationals' Kurt Suzuki dropped a bunt, and the ball landed right between Astros reliever Wilton Lopez and first baseman Steve Pearce. They collided, and Roger Bernadina started his sprint around the bases. As Pearce was finally throwing the ball toward first base, third baseman Matt Downs leapt in front of him, further adding to the confusion near the mound.
The ball buzzed past second baseman Jose Altuve and bounced around foul territory in right field. Bernadina turned to look, and he was set on heading home. Third-base coach Bo Porter put up the stop sign, but it didn't stop Bernadina. And it didn't matter, anyway. Right fielder Brian Bogusevic's throw sailed past catcher Chris Snyder at home plate, and Bernadina scored.
In that bizarre sequence of events during the 11th inning, all the Nationals' earlier mistakes were washed away, and they escaped with a 5-4 win in the opener of a four-game series before a crowd of 13,843 on Monday at Minute Maid Park.
"It doesn't always have to be pretty," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "We bent a lot, but we didn't break. That's the good news."
The bad news is there were plenty of mistakes to be atoned for: all the runners left on base, all the deep counts, the lack of aggressiveness early in counts, the lead surrendered. But, as they say -- and they certainly said it plenty in the Nationals' clubhouse Monday night -- a win is a win. And this win kept Washington three games ahead of the Braves, who also won Monday, in the National League East standings.
"At the end of the day, the results are what we wanted. We'll take it," starter Edwin Jackson said. "We've had a lot of good games where we've played great and then come up with a loss. To get a win any way we can, it's definitely a good feeling."
"That's what we've been all year. We've grinded it out when we haven't had our best stuff as a team," added closer Tyler Clippard. "We're out there every day just knowing we're going to win. We have that winning mentality right now. ... We feel like we're going to win every night. It's a nice feeling."
Early on, it didn't seem as if the game would get nearly that tense. The Nationals were filling up the scorecard with hits, and Jackson was racking up strikeouts. But the hits didn't turn into enough runs, and Jackson got into deep counts and ran up his pitch count to 106 in just 5 1/3 innings.
Still, the Nationals had built a three-run lead. But that turned into a one-run advantage in the sixth, and after a clean seventh by reliever Ryan Mattheus, the Astros threatened to break through in the eighth.
Sean Burnett got into trouble, recording two outs before leaving the game with a runner on third. In came Drew Storen, with Johnson planning to use him to just face one batter. Instead, he walked two to load the bases. He fell behind J.D. Martinez, 3-0, while struggling to find the strike zone. But after a called strike, Martinez hit a shot to center field, Bernadina got under it and the threat had passed.
"When we missed, we missed bad," Johnson said of his pitching staff. "Edwin, I thought he had pretty good stuff. But he was on pace for 120-something pitches if he goes six, and his misses were really bad misses. ... It carried over to everybody I brought in except, I think, Mattheus."
That paved the way for Clippard, clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth. After striking out Downs, he hit Carlos Corporan with a curveball, walked Bogusevic and gave up a double to Altuve, scoring pinch-runner Lucas Harrell. Bogusevic was 90 feet from home with only one out, but Clippard struck out Marwin Gonzalez and Brett Wallace, sending the game into extra innings.
"That's the life we live in the bullpen. We've got to make our pitches when it counts," Clippard said. "In that situation, you've got to. One run scores, it's over. You've just got to forget that you let the game slip away a little bit and lock it back down. I'm thankful I was able to do that."
Craig Stammen breezed through the 10th and eventually shut the door in the 11th, and in between, the Nationals scored on one of the more bizarre game-winning plays you'll see in the Major Leagues this season.
"You get in a situation where everyone wants to make the play, and they both thought that they were going to be able to catch the ball in the air," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "They got ready to dive for it, and they each saw the other guy."
"I said, 'Oh no, please don't get caught,'" Suzuki laughed. "Once they dropped it and crashed, I said, 'Oh baby!' I had to start running to first. They threw it away, and I just kept running. So was Bernie, too."
"It worked out well for us," concluded Bernadina.
And in the end, it was a win. And that's all that mattered on such a back-and-forth night, right?
"It's a character-builder right there," Johnson said. "You say, 'I can survive it.' That's the character."