Downs caps 'surreal' comeback win with long-awaited hit

August 13th, 2023

WASHINGTON -- saw Ildemaro Vargas toss the blue bucket of sunflower seeds into the air in celebration. Then, he noticed the pair of orange Gatorade coolers being lifted in his direction amid a swarm of elated teammates. 

“I was like, 'I can’t run from this,'” Downs said. “I just statued and I took it.”

Downs was at the center of the Nationals' six-run walk-off comeback win over the Athletics that began and ended with him at the plate in the ninth inning. Washington’s 8-7 victory was the first game in which it overcame a hole of five or more runs in the final inning since Sept. 3, 2019, against the Mets.

“Honestly, it still feels surreal,” Downs said following his first career walk-off hit. 

Additionally, with the Marlins’ walk-off win over the Yankees, Sunday marked the first time two teams won when trailing by four or more runs entering the ninth inning on the same day since 2010.

Downs entered his fourth Major League contest of the year in the eighth inning in place of shortstop CJ Abrams, who experienced back spasms (manager Dave Martinez said Abrams was OK after the game). The 25-year-old infielder had played the majority of his first season in the Nats organization in Triple-A Rochester, but he was ready for the moment. 

“He’s been working really hard,” Martinez said. “He gets an opportunity today and does something big for the ballclub, so that means a lot.”

Trailing 7-2, Downs led off the ninth with a six-pitch walk against righty Trevor May. Lane Thomas lined out, and Joey Meneses picked the momentum back up with a line-drive single into left field. Keibert Ruiz then loaded the bases on a single to right.

Following a mound visit, Stone Garrett drove in Downs for one of his three RBIs on the day with a ground ball to left, then Vargas plated Meneses on a sacrifice fly. The Nationals had cut the deficit to 7-4  and still had runners on first and third, but they still had work to do with two outs and had not been able to capitalize on similar situations earlier in the afternoon.

Garrett advanced to second on a passed ball, then Riley Adams drew a walk to load the bases again. Martinez gave the nod to Dominic Smith to pinch-hit for Michael Chavis, which was followed by the A’s making the call to the ‘pen for southpaw Kirby Snead. Smith battled back from an 0-2 count to draw a six-pitch walk that brought in Ruiz.

“I actually faced him last night and saw how he attacked,” Smith said of Snead. “I kind of got myself out in that at-bat [a groundout], so I wanted to really be selective at what I swung at. He made some close pitches, and I didn’t really budge and give in.”

A fielding error by shortstop Nick Allen, who was subbed in for the eighth inning, on Alex Call’s grounder allowed Garrett and Blake Rutherford (who pinch-ran for Adams) to score the game-tying runs. That brought Downs to the plate again with Smith on third. Downs had not recorded a big league hit since July 28, 2022, or an RBI since July 17 of last season with the Red Sox.

“The crowd was going crazy, so I just took a second just to take a deep breath and take it all in; it was a pretty cool moment,” Downs said. “When I scored [earlier] that inning, I looked up at the scoreboard and I realized I was close to hitting again. I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to stay locked in.’”

Downs thought about a message Smith had relayed to the team in the dugout: “Not to give any at-bats away, that they all matter.” Capping a seven-pitch at-bat, Downs dropped a slider into shallow center field that was deep enough for Smith to score the game-winning run. He screamed in elation as he rounded first base and was greeted by a flood of his teammates in front of second base.

“The way it all ended, that’s why we play this game,” Downs said. “You don’t ever think about something happening like that, especially down five in the ninth.”

Sunday’s heroics are a shining highlight of Downs’ second Major League season. A 2017 Draft pick (32nd overall) by the Reds, he debuted with the Red Sox last year after being ranked by MLB Pipeline as their No. 1 prospect. But he was designated for assignment by Boston in mid-December, and Washington claimed him off waivers a week later.

Downs appeared in one game with the Nationals during an early-season stint, but then he battled through injuries and rehab assignments before being called up again from Triple-A on Aug. 3, when starting second baseman Luis García was optioned to Rochester.

While the Nationals celebrated their win, they also celebrated what this meant for Downs.

“You can’t be anything but super happy for him,” said Smith. “Everybody was thrilled. He’s a great guy, a great teammate, he works hard and he’s a great player. So he deserves everything he gets, for sure.”