Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Jordan Zimmermann dominated for six innings but became an afterthought.
Yes, there was plenty of intrigue to what turned into a 1-0, 10-inning loss to the Marlins, with Nyjer Morgan once again front-and-center in a controversial collision at the plate. And we'll get to that in a moment. But in the long run, tonight's 10th inning matters far less than Zimmermann's six innings of pitching brilliance, the latest (and most emphatic) statement that the 24-year-old right-hander is all the way back from Tommy John surgery.
The Nationals have played 133 games now this season, and there's little question about which performance by a starting pitcher was best: Stephen Strasburg's 14-strikeout debut against the Pirates. But you know what? Zimmermann's start tonight was only a small tick below it. And if not for the innings and pitch-count restrictions the Nats have placed on him, he might well have gone the distance and actually surpassed Strasburg's performance.
Over his six innings, Zimmermann faced 18 Marlins batters. That's the bare minimum he could have faced over six innings. The only one to reach base against him: Gaby Sanchez, who doubled to lead off the second, then was subsequently gunned down trying to tag up to third. So that means of the 86 pitches Zimmermann threw tonight, only five were thrown out of the stretch, all to one batter. That's pretty amazing.
Zimmermann didn't allow a run. He allowed only the one hit to Sanchez. He didn't walk a batter. He only went to a three-ball count four times. He threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of 18 batters. And he struck out a career-high nine Marlins, including five in a row at one point. That's Strasburgian.
"I felt great," Zimmermann said. "That's probably the best I've felt in a long time."
It may have been the best the young righty has felt in a long time, but it was only the latest dominant start to his season. Zimmermann has now made 12 combined starts between the minors and majors. He hasn't allowed an earned run in nine of them.
If you total up all of Zimmermann's starts, he's compiled a 2.17 ERA, allowed only 35 hits in 49 2/3 innings while posting a 44-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"That was very encouraging," Jim Riggleman said of tonight's outing. "He threw the ball real good. ... He wasn't overthrowing. He wasn't wild. He was throwing quality strikes, mixed his pitches up well. Just really did a good job."
Not that Strasburg needs any extra motivation to overcome what he's about to experience, but it was all right there on display for him to see tonight. Zimmermann had his Tommy John surgery 378 days ago. On September 16, 2011, Strasburg could do the exact same thing.
Unfortunately, Zimmermann's brilliance got lost amid the craziness that took place in the 10th inning of this game. Had his teammates simply scored one run anytime earlier in the evening, the entire storyline would have been his. Instead, all the immediate attention was on Nyjer Morgan, Hanley Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez, who wound up deciding the outcome of this one.
Let's fast-forward to the top of the 10th. With one out, Morgan was on second base, Alberto Gonzalez on first, Adam Kennedy at the plate. Kennedy bounced a ball towards second, and Emilio Bonifacio flipped to Ramirez to start what figured to be an attempted 4-6-3 double play.
Seeing all this play out in front of him, Nationals third base coach Pat Listach frantically waved Morgan around third. The thinking?
"I assumed it was going to be a close play at first," Listach said. "A.K. beats it out, and Nyjer scores easy."
It was a smart play, and it was the right play. Either Kennedy's out at first and the inning's over, or he's safe at first and Morgan is safe at the plate, giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead. The only problem: Ramirez never attempted to turn the double play. He thought the ball had been hit too softly to have a chance, so he held it, then upon seeing Morgan racing around third, fired it to the plate.
The ball arrived before Morgan did, and though it was high and required a little jump from catcher Brett Hayes to catch it, an admittedly surprised Nyjer had a split-second to decide whether to try to go low and slide around the tag or try to take out Hayes in a collision.
"You gotta hit him there," Morgan said. "I think if I try to slide there, I probably hurt myself. It's just one of those plays where it's just a hard play. It's just baseball."
Morgan lowered his left shoulder and plowed into Hayes, who went sprawling backward but hung onto the ball for the out.
The debate immediately was on: Was Morgan correct in crashing into the catcher, or should he have tried to slide? Across the Nationals' clubhouse, the prevailing sentiment was that Nyjer did the right thing. That came from players, from coaches and from front-office execs. All felt it was a clean play, and the right play.
The closest anyone came to questioning it was Riggleman, who watched a replay of the collision in his office as reporters were asking him about the play and emerged with no clear answer, though he fully supported Morgan's ultimate decision.
"When I saw it live, I don't know," the manager said. "And even as I watch it there, I don't know. Hindsight's 20/20. I don't know if he should've slid or not. As it happened live, I didn't know how much the catcher's blocking the plate. As Nyjer's going in there and as he's making his decision, he doesn't know that maybe the ball's going to be up a little bit. He doesn't know that. He's got to make his decision before that. So I don't have any problem with his decision."
The Marlins apparently didn't feel the same way about it and weren't shy to admit it. It didn't help that Hayes was busy getting his left shoulder examined by the training staff.
"I would say it was clean if I hadn't seen what he had done earlier in the week against St. Louis," third baseman Chad Tracy told reporters. "I think he would have had a better chance to be safe if he was sliding." Tracy later added: "It fires you up when you see the way he's been playing the last week or so."
There's the key point: Morgan had just been involved in a home plate collision three nights earlier, when he went out of his way to clip Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson despite there never being a throw to the plate, and in the process missed the plate altogether.
That play got a lot of national attention, because Riggleman benched Morgan the next day fearing his presence in the lineup might lead to a beanball war. People around baseball saw the highlight and instantly recalled it when tonight's incident took place.
Had the Saturday night play in D.C. not happened, no one would have batted an eyelash over tonight's collision. Instead, this comes across as a pattern of dirty behavior that won't win Morgan any fans around the sport.
Could Morgan have slid instead? Yes. Would he have been safe had he gone in low? Maybe, but it's hard to say that definitively.
Whatever the case, his cause wasn't helped when, about 10 minutes later, Ramirez made a brilliant slide into the plate to beat Roger Bernadina's throw and Rodriguez's tag to win the game.
Rodriguez and Riggleman argued vehemently with umpire Jim Wolf over the call, believing the tag had been applied before Ramirez crossed the plate. But replays were conclusive: Pudge tagged him high, on the shoulder, and Ramirez's foot got in first.
"I saw the video. He was under me," Rodriguez said. "I just did the best that I could. But he beat me. It was a good call for Jim. I apologize for what I did out there. He made the right call."
Riggleman hadn't yet seen a replay when he spoke to reporters.
"It must have just been a great slide, because the throw beat him," the manager said. "Bernie made a great throw, and Pudge made a great athletic move to dive towards Hanley. I guess I just assumed we were going to get an out call, because it looked like he got there. Pudge, it looked like he got to Hanley. Jim Wolf saw it differently, and he had the best look of anybody."
Just like that, what could have been an inspiring performance for the Nationals — featuring Zimmermann's dominant start, plus three hitless innings of relief from Joel Peralta and Tyler Clippard — turned into an agonizing (and controversial) loss.
There's another game to be played tomorrow night, and it promises to feature an intriguing storyline. If Morgan is in the Nationals lineup — and there's no reason he shouldn't be — don't be surprised if he gets a fastball in the ribs.
Whether he believes it's justified or not, it'll be up to Nyjer to take the punishment, put his head down and trot to first base.
He's been criticized plenty lately for lack of baseball acuity. Here's his chance to show everyone he really does understand how to play this game.