US Presswire photo
Ryan Zimmerman was all smiles after scoring the game-winning run on a wild pitch.
Zimmerman's fist pump as he popped to his feet on Alfredo Simon's bottom-of-the-10th wild pitch, though, seemed to have some added purpose and emotion. He wasn't only happy to help the Nationals win this game. He was relieved not to have helped them lose it with his shaky defense at third base.
"If we had lost that game," Zimmerman said, "it would've been hard for me to sleep tonight."
It would've been difficult for anyone on the roster -- or the sellout crowd of 40,907 -- to get a good night's rest, because it would've been a humiliating way to lose a home opener. Up 2-0 most of the afternoon thanks to Gio Gonzalez's brilliant pitching performance and Adam LaRoche's clutch, two-run single, the Nationals were two outs away from wrapping up a nice, tidy win over a quality opponent.
And then the wheels fell off in an unsettling top of the ninth that saw fill-in closer Brad Lidge put four straight men on base and Zimmerman fail to make the play on Ryan Ludwick's game-tying, two-run single down the third-base line.
In the end, that ninth-inning collapse became a footnote by day's end, thanks to an unconventional, bottom-of-the-10th rally by the home club. With a chance to launch his ninth career walk-off homer into the bleachers, Zimmerman instead got things rolling by taking Simon's very first pitch off his left arm.
Jayson Werth's one-out, seeing-eye single through the left side of the infield advanced Zimmerman to second base, and then Xavier Nady's grounder advanced him to third.
So with two outs, up to the plate stepped Roger Bernadina with a chance to be the hero. Which he was simply by letting Simon's 0-1 slider bounce in the dirt and scoot away from catcher Devin Mesoraco.
Bernadina's initial reaction was to hold up his hand and tell Zimmerman to slam on the brakes and not take a chance scoring on the wild pitch. The man on third base, though, never hesitated and took off for the plate as soon as he saw what happened.
"It's one of those things that you've done since you were 10 years old," Zimmerman said. "Obviously the ball has to go away enough to where you think you can make it. Bernie hit the ball hard three times today, so I wasn't going to take the bat out of his hands. But any time you get a chance to end the game, you just gotta get a read and trust your instincts."
In the end, Bernadina was OK with his teammate's split-second decision.
"That's a good read from Zim," he said.
Even if it denied you the opportunity to drive in the game-winning run?
"Yeah, but we got the win."
Indeed, they did. It wasn't quite how they drew it up, but the Nationals happily took another nip-and-tuck victory in an opening week already filled with several of these. Of their seven games to date, five have still been up for grabs in the ninth inning. Even their "blowout" 4-0 win yesterday in New York was a tight, 1-0 game into the seventh.
One of these days, Davey Johnson and Co. are going to get to enjoy themselves in the late innings, right?
"Well, I expect us to get some hits with runners in scoring position. We haven't done as well as we're capable of doing," Johnson said. "I like the way we're swinging the bats. Hopefully we'll break out and have a laugher. Soon."
It wasn't going to happen today, not with the Nationals again struggling to cobble together more than a couple of runs. But this is the formula for victory they've established, and they're probably going to continue to call upon it until some of their ice-cold hitters bust out.
Besides, who needs offensive explosions when you've got perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball right now? Add Gonzalez's seven scoreless innings from today to the last two starts by Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler (plus the final inning of Edwin Jackson's outing Monday in New York) and the Nationals rotation now has a 19-inning scoreless streak going.
That still could have gone for naught during that harrowing ninth inning, especially when Zimmerman (who had already been charged with one error earlier and was upset at himself for failing to make another play on Wilson Valdez's double in the eighth) couldn't get in front of Ludwick's bases-loaded grounder to his right.
"That play and the Valdez play, those are plays that I expect myself to make," Zimmerman said. "And I hope my teammates expect me to make those as well. They're not routine plays, but they're plays I think I should make."
"I mean, nine out of 10 times he probably does make that play," Lidge said. "He's one of the best out there. But I think it really comes back to me executing the pitch better. That's not his fault. The baserunners were my fault."
It's all good, though, because the man who had already won so many games for the Nationals both with his bat and with his glove managed to find a new way to set off a wild celebration at the plate: For maybe the first time ever, he used his legs.
"That was one of my worst games," he said. "But, we won. So I don't even remember it anymore."
No, what everyone will remember today is that the Nationals are 5-2. And yes, they sit all alone in first place in the NL East.
Not a bad perch for a franchise that since arriving in town has rarely enjoyed such a nice view.