“We’re not mathematically out of it yet,” Zimmermann said. “You’ve got to keep fighting until the end, and hopefully one of these other two teams tank.”
Once the Nationals returned to their clubhouse, they watched the Cincinnati Reds score three runs in the ninth. More than a few curse words could be heard as the game-tying hit trickled into left field. The Nationals had entered the day trailing the Reds by five games for the NL’s second wild card. They may now have to shift allegiances. They trail both the Reds and Pirates by five with eight to play.
“We’re fans of whoever can sweep the other team,” Span said.
Zimmermann’s fourth complete game may stand as the finest outing of the Nationals’ season, right next to Gio Gonzalez’s one-hit shutout last week in New York. Donovan Solano’s single to center with two outs in the sixth broke up the no-hit bid, and their second hit didn’t come until Chris Coghlan singled with two outs in the ninth.
“It’s probably one of the better ones I’ve ever had up here,” Zimmermann said. “The bullpen before the game wasn’t that good, and I thought it might be a long game. But as soon as I stepped out there and the first inning went on, I knew I had some pretty good stuff.”
Zimmermann (19-8) walked one, struck out nine and faced three batters more than the minimum. The Marlins hit five balls out of the infield and whiffed at 14 pitches. He asserted his dominance from the start.
“You could tell from the first pitch of the ballgame that Zim wasn’t going to be denied,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He was going right after them, throwing hard. It was just overmatching stuff.”
After Marlins leadoff hitter Solano grounded to short, Zimmermann struck out the next five hitters. He blew a 95-mph fastball over the inside corner past Giancarlo Stanton. Justin Ruggiano froze on a 3-2 slider. Logan Morrison chased a 96-mph fastball at his neck. Zimmermann had perhaps never carried better stuff into a start. Every fastball hummed at 95 or better and every slider was a Frisbee.
“It reminded me of that one Game 4 game when he came out of the bullpen,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Except it was a start.”
After one trip through the lineup, the Marlins had struck out six times and hit zero balls out of the infield. Zimmermann whiffed Jeff Mathis with another 95-mph fastball for his sixth strikeout. Zimmermann’s streak of consecutive batters retired reached 11 when Coghlan swung over a 90-mph slider.
“Was one 90?” second baseman Anthony Rendon said. “That’s unfair.”
Zimmermann lost his chance at a perfect game when he walked Stanton. He then promptly struck out Ruggiano with an 88-mph slider, which gave him eight strikeouts in four innings.
“It looked like a fastball, and then it would slurve away,” center fielder Denard Span said. “He was buckling me out there.”
Zimmermann recorded two quick outs in the sixth, which moved him 10 outs away from the first no-hitter in Nationals history. He started Solano, the brother of Nationals catcher Jhonatan, with two quick strikes. The pitcher who had not made a mistake all night left an 0-2, 95-mph heater at the letters.
A few inches higher, and perhaps Solano would have been unable to catch up to it. With the pitch at the top of the strike zone, Solano flared it to center field, a clean single.
“The only bad pitch he made,” Johnson said. “Solano’s a good fastball hitter, and even a good high fastball hitter. And he left it right up there for him. I think it was just bad pitch selection.”
The crowd gave Zimmermann a standing ovation, and then faced the cold reality. Even with Zimmermann’s brilliance, the Nationals were still only tied.
The Nationals had managed only three hits themselves off of Marlins starter Jacob Turner, and then they erupted in the sixth. Span sparked the rally with a line-drive single to right, a day after his 29-game hitting streak ended. Werth delivered the first blow, a two-run double that short-hopped the left field fence.
Bryce Harper scored Werth with another double, and the Nationals kept battering Turner until the lineup turned over. Span finalized the scoring with his second hit of the inning, a two-run triple off the right field wall.
The Nationals had turned a scoreless thriller into a rout, and the only question became whether or not Zimmermann would finish it off. When Zimmermann’s turn in the lineup came up in the eighth, he walked to the bat rack. “Don’t talk to him,” Johnson told pitching coach Steve McCatty.
The crowd showered Zimmermann with cheers as he walked to the mound for the ninth. After Coghlan’s single, Stanton came to bat. “Make a quality pitch,” Zimmermann told himself. Stanton grounded a fastball to second base.
Zimmermann had been in full control, but as soon as he walked off the mound he and the rest of his teammates became helpless.
“We’re going to need some help,” Werth said. “We just need to play the way we’re playing and keep winning games. We’ll see what happens.”