Saturday, with two outs and the bases empty in the third, Justin Upton tapped a ball to the left side. Zimmerman charged toward the middle of the diamond and plucked the chopper on a high hop. As he crossed the mound, Zimmerman had time but chose to throw on the run, a motion he has mastered. This time, though, he short-armed the submarine toss.
“I should have set my feet,” Zimmerman said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating. It’s an easy play. I have more time. I should have just set my feet and made a strong throw, like I’ve been doing all year on those balls.”
LaRoche stretched into foul ground but, unlike a similar play Friday night, could not bail Zimmerman out. He tried for a sweep tag as the ball pulled him from the bag, but the ball deflected off LaRoche’s glove and trickled into foul ground.
A 26-year-old rookie, Gattis may be the tallest baseball tale that also happens to be true. He is a former drug addict who only a few years ago worked as a janitor. He does not wear batting gloves, hits cleanup and swings like a slow-pitch softball masher. When he played in the Venezuelan winter league, they called him “El Oso Blanco” — The White Bear.
Gattis pulverizes fastballs, and Strasburg intended to pitch him the same way Ross Detwiler had the previous night. He wanted to start low, then move up and make him chase a high fastball. The first step in Strasburg’s strategy didn’t work when he left the first fastball to Gattis up, not down and away like he wanted.
Gattis mashed the first fastball Strasburg threw him foul. Strasburg, perhaps sensing Gattis had him timed, threw a curveball in the dirt to even the count. He tempted fate with the high fastball. Gattis tattooed the chin-high, 96-mph heater over the home bullpen.
“The guy’s up there hacking,” Strasburg said. “I throw one at his neck, and he tomahawks it out. . . . You don’t really face a guy like that ever. You don’t really have any book to go off of.”
Strasburg hung on for 112 pitches, whiffing the final two batters he faced in the sixth. He finished with seven strikeouts against one walk and five hits. It was not enough against Hudson, who lowered his career ERA against the Nationals to 2.60. “Huddy was Huddy,” LaRoche said. “When he’s on, that’s what you’re getting.”
Gio Gonzalez will try to slow the Braves down Sunday against Paul Maholm in the finale. Zimmerman will man third base, confident about his throws across the diamond. The Nationals will arrive at their park believing they are the better team, unwilling to accept any April conclusions as truth.
“They’re good,” Espinosa said. “I don’t think they’re better than us. They’re a good ballclub. They have talent. They’re hot. They’ve come back in a couple games, but it all evens out.”