CINCINNATI (AP)—Not even Ken Griffey Jr. could believe this one.
The Cincinnati Reds center fielder hadn’t played in a month because of a bad knee, and was only 1-for-5 when he got one last chance to make things turn out right Thursday night. With one against-the-odds swing, he did.
Griffey’s three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th inning sent the Reds to a pulsating 5-4 victory over the Washington Nationals and reminded his teammates of what they have missed.
“Hopefully we can keep him healthy for the rest of the year,” said starter Bronson Arroyo, who blanked the Nationals for eight innings before the game went its own wacky way.
The Reds rallied against one of the NL’s most overworked bullpens to set up Griffey’s decisive swing. Felipe Lopez had a run-scoring single in the 11th off Felix Rodriguez, who then walked Edwin Encarnacion with one out and the Nationals clinging to a 4-2 lead.
Griffey waited on-deck while Joey Eischen (0-1) jogged in from the bullpen and warmed up. A few thousand fans stood, wondering if the oft-injured outfielder was up to the dramatic moment.
They should have known.
After a called strike, Griffey connected on a 413-foot homer that brought his gleeful teammates hopping to home plate to celebrate. He dropped his head, pursed his lips and raised his arms while rounding the bases for the 539th time in his career.
“After you hit it, it’s like cloud nine,” Griffey said.
Then, he was mobbed at the plate and brought out for a curtain call by fans who stuck around on a cool, damp night to see the 36-year-old outfielder end the Reds’ first extra-inning game of the season.
“It’s awesome,” Griffey said. “I don’t get very many chances to hit a game-winning home run, and to do it in my first game back from all the abuse I’ve taken over the last couple of weeks “
Eischen, who hasn’t saved a game since 2003, didn’t want to discuss his two-pitch performance.
“If you’re waiting for me, I have nothing to say,” Eischen said, facing into his locker.
This one had plenty of wild turns.
Matt LeCroy tied it at 1 in the ninth with a shallow sacrifice fly for Washington, and Nick Johnson homered in the 11th to start a three-run rally for a 4-1 lead. Brian Shackelford (1-0) got the final out of the inning for Cincinnati, and the Nationals needed only to get through the bottom of the Reds’ order to finish it off.
“It’s absolutely a waste for that game to get away from us,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It kicks you right in the gut. It’s one you don’t forget about easily.”
The Reds won’t, either. The victory extended their first-place stay in the NL Central to 14 days, their longest in two years.
“You can’t let a game like that slip away to have a big year,” said Arroyo, who dominated while he was in the game.
Arroyo gave up six hits while shutting down one of the NL’s least-productive lineups for the second straight time. The Nationals managed only one hit off him in eight scoreless innings on April 26.
The more NL batters see him, the less they seem to like him. Arroyo has now faced three teams twice—the Nationals, Cubs and Cardinals. In those second-look games, he is 2-0 and has given up only one earned run in 24 innings.
Arroyo got a standing ovation from the crowd of 15,771 when he left after the eighth inning. He wasn’t the only one with a big cheering section.
Dozens of Zach Day’s relatives and friends were bundled in the stands for his latest homecoming. The Nationals starter grew up in Cincinnati, where he was one of the city’s top high school pitchers.
Day pitched impressively on the mound where he suffered one of his two painful moments last season. Griffey’s line drive broke his right wrist during a relief appearance last May 23, although the tiny crack in the bone wasn’t detected for eight days. Day also broke his thumb later in the season.
The right-hander kept up with Arroyo until the fifth, when Lopez singled with two outs, stole second and scored easily on Edwin Encarnacion’s single to right. Day gave up seven hits in seven innings.
LeCroy made his sixth start behind the plate, replacing Brian Schneider, who left a game last Saturday with tightness in his left hamstring, and has started only one game since. … Reds manager Jerry Narron attended his daughter’s graduation at North Carolina-Greensboro on Thursday. He flew back and made it to the dugout for the fifth inning, taking over for bench coach Bucky Dent. … Lopez’s steal in the fifth inning was his 16th, topping his total from last season. … Arroyo lowered his ERA to 2.03.