Sometimes the hero is Jeter Downs.
“It still feels surreal at this point,” Downs said after an 8-7 win for his Washington Nationals against the Oakland Athletics, a win capped by a six-run, ninth-inning rally that ended with his bloop single to shallow center.
According to ESPN, at the start of Sunday, teams were 3-759 this season when trailing by four runs or more in the ninth inning or later. By adding a win to that total, the Nationals (53-66) swept the Athletics (33-85), the worst team in baseball, and briefly moved into fourth place in the National League East. The New York Mets nudged a half-game ahead of them by beating the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night.
“Honestly, at first … I thought he was going to make a play,” Downs continued. “But even that ball in the air, the way I hit it, it was going to be really funky, the spin on it. Lucky for us, it had enough to get over his head.”
The inning started with Downs in the batter’s box and reliever Trevor May on the mound, the Athletics leading 7-2. Downs walked on six pitches, taking one swing and otherwise staying patient. After that, Lane Thomas lined out before Joey Meneses, Keibert Ruiz and Stone Garrett ripped three straight singles, with Garrett picking up his third RBI of the day. On Garrett’s hit, Downs crossed the plate, the deficit slimmed to four. Once in the dugout, he looked at the scoreboard and realized he could bat again. He heard Dominic Smith telling teammates to not give at-bats away. Eventually, he would take that to heart.
The next batter, Ildemaro Vargas, cut the margin to three with a sacrifice fly to deep center. Riley Adams followed with a walk to load the bases. Nationals Manager Dave Martinez turned to Smith to pinch-hit, leading the Athletics to counter with Kirby Snead for a lefty-lefty matchup. But Snead was wild, walking Smith to make it 7-5 and bring up Alex Call, the Nationals’ struggling center fielder. On a 1-1 count, Call bounced a grounder up the middle, a ball that shortstop Nick Allen let trickle through his glove and into center field for an error. Garrett and pinch runner Blake Rutherford ran in to knot the score.
That’s when Downs became the 10th batter of the inning. The line would start and end with him.
“It was close. It was a floater,” Garrett said, adding that he blacked out while trying to find a water bottle to pour on Downs. “But once you saw [Allen] scrambling back there, you knew it was a hit and going to drop in there.”
Downs’s single traveled 69.3 mph, maybe not even fast enough for a speeding ticket on a nearby interstate. Yet all it needed to do was splash into the outfield grass, just out of Allen’s reach. Snead took one glance at the ball and started a lonely walk to the dugout. Downs, in the game because shortstop CJ Abrams had left with back spasms, rounded first base, looked to the sky and screamed his head off. Then he stopped between second and the mound, his teammates sprinting at him, and tossed his helmet into the air with two hands.
Before that ninth inning, before Vargas and other teammates showered him with sunflower seeds, Downs had zero hits in four plate appearances for the Nationals. He was promoted Aug. 3, when Luis García went to the minors, despite hitting .175 at Class AAA Rochester. The 25-year-old has appeared in just three games since, four in the entire season after the Nationals claimed him off waivers in December. And who knows what will happen from here, if he has a place in the club’s future, if he will ever play for Washington in any games of consequence? For one afternoon, who cares?
He arrived with a history of falling short, as a 2017 first-round draft pick who couldn’t hack it as a top prospect with the Boston Red Sox. You may remember him as a key piece when Boston traded all-star Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. You may have laughed at the Red Sox, of all teams, staking at least some of their hopes to an infielder named Jeter. None of those hopes panned out, for Downs or his old team. But Sunday, in a matchup of non-contenders, in a month that often brings frustration for those clubs — so far from the beginning, not close enough to the end — he got his chance and delivered. That doesn’t have to be predictive or analyzed to oblivion. It can just be what it is.
“It’s a big moment for him,” Smith said. “All these young guys coming up right now, they work so hard every day behind the scenes. That doesn’t get highlighted a lot. So for him to be sitting early in the year, not getting many at-bats, come back up, kind of not get into the everyday rotation, then get in because CJ came out and come up big — you can’t be nothing but super happy for him.”
After wins, the Nationals have a small celebration in the clubhouse, including Martinez giving out a game ball. The chosen player signs the ball before it goes in a plastic case on a shelf. This has been a tradition since 2019, when Martinez filled a wall by his office with each of the 105 game balls it took to win the World Series.
On Sunday, Martinez had two candidates: Downs, of course, but also rookie reliever Joe La Sorsa, who pitched two scoreless innings and earned his first win. In the end, Downs was an easy choice, though it was what happened afterward that had Martinez choking up during his postgame news conference.
Asked to say a few words, Downs called up batting practice pitcher James Frisbie to share the recognition. Frisbie, new to the Nationals this season, is as out of the spotlight as it gets, mostly throwing to hitters in the batting cage below the stands. But for Downs, he has been critical to staying ready each day, the two of them preparing for situations that almost never happen. Then a game found Downs twice in the ninth inning.
Then he seized it with one swing.
POST AUTHOR: Jesse Dougherty