The Nationals’ harrowing bottom of the ninth yesterday was defined by two defensive plays, one that endangered the victory and one that saved it. Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart drilled a one-out triple that Jayson Werth nearly caught at the warning track. One batter later, Ryan Zimmerman threw him out at the plate.
Clinging to a one-run lead, closer Brad Lidge struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. But then Stewart crushed a deep fly ball to right field. The wind gusted in mostly from right and center, but the breeze still pushed back Stewart’s blast.
“I wasn’t thinking it’d be possible for a ball to go out today,” Lidge said. “But he made it pretty dang close.”
The drive sailed to the warning track, right at the crook in Wrigley’s fence. Werth battled the sun, the wind and the wall until the ball dropped to the dirt, missing his glove by less than a foot.
“I thought he could have had that ball,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Werth was not so sure. When he watched the play on replay, Werth was actually surprised how close he had come to making the play.
“If the sun is not involved, it’s a catchable ball,” Werth said. “With the ball being in the sun whole time, and just totally guessing on the spot with the wind. … In that situation, that’s the last thing you want to have happen. Any ball that stays in the yard needs to be caught.
“I didn’t get the job done there. With the elements and the sun and everything going on there, if I get that same play 10 times, I don’t know if I make it once. It was a tough play.”
In any event, with Jeff Baker at the plate, the winning run stood 90 feet away with one out. Any hit in the air could tie the game.
“The biggest thing in a situation like that, one out, you try to get a groundball to the left side,” Lidge said. “As soon as that runner stopped at third, I had a real good feeling.”
Lidge tried to induce that grounder with a slider, his best pitch, down and in. Baker swung, and Lidge had his perfect results, a roller right to Ryan Zimmerman. “We got the ball we wanted,” Lidge said. Zimmerman scooped up the ball and fired to Wilson Ramos, who had plenty of time to tag pinch runner Joe Mather as he slid home.
Lidge ended the game by striking out Marlon Byrd, freezing him with a 3-2 fastball after five consecutive sliders. When the Nationals signed Lidge in late January, he understood, despite his 223 career saves, he would not be pitching the ninth inning. But Drew Storen landed on the disabled list, and in the year’s very first game, Lidge found himself in the tightest possible situation, going for No. 224.
“Unexpected from where we were two months ago,” Lidge said. “It was, ‘Give the guy a million dollars and let him look after the kids.’ ”
Instead, on opening day, he looked after the ninth inning, a thrill-a-minute frame that ended with handshakes, hugs and a harrowing win for Washington.