WASHINGTON -- Michael Taylor's right knee was almost too sore for him to play on Friday night. It's why Nationals manager Matt Williams kept the rookie outfielder out of the starting lineup for a third straight game, and it's why Taylor was passed over as one pinch-hitting opportunity after another passed by in the first nine innings.
But in the bottom of the 10th inning in an early September game too important to squander, Williams called for Taylor to hit. When a sacrifice fly would have made him a hero, Taylor hammered a 1-0 Brandon Cunniff slider, notching the first pinch-hit walk-off home run in team history as the Nationals toppled the Braves, 5-2.
"We're trying to stay off him if we can, to give him one more day," Williams said. "There's debate if the inning's different and he got on base whether he was actually going to run. We didn't have to get to that, thankfully."
Taylor's blast earned the Nationals a game in the National League East race. The Mets' loss to the Marlins in Miami -- complete with cheers and high-fives in Washington's clubhouse -- cut the deficit to down to five games.
"I don't think [the Mets' loss] makes this win any bigger," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "I think it makes the rest of the season bigger. Like I said, it's not going to be one game, it's not going to be a series here or there. It's going to be us being able to keep the momentum that we have right now and carrying that throughout the rest of the season till the last game of the season."
With the score tied at 1 for most of the game, Taylor, who said he felt healthy enough to play before Thursday's game, kept hanging around his manager, trying to get the nod.
"I'm just standing close, like stretching and trying to get his attention and things like that," Taylor said. "I was standing at the bat rack the whole game trying to get in the game. Just to be able to get in there and get a chance, I was happy for that."
One inning after Taylor's high school teammate Matt den Dekker forced extra innings with a two-out RBI single in the ninth, Taylor finally got his call. And like he has all season, Taylor came through.
With fellow outfielders Jayson Werth and Denard Span missing a significant portion of the season, Taylor's role in 2015 has been larger than anyone predicted. His performance -- 14 home runs, 58 RBIs and several tremendous defensive plays -- has been a huge lift.
"I just think he's a ballplayer," said Bryce Harper, who was on base for the game-winning blast. "He's a gamer. He wants to win every single game, and he's truly a great player. I think everybody knows he's going to be an unbelievable player, the older he gets and the more he plays. I'm excited for him and the way he's going about it right now. All the power to him."
Jacob Emert is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.