PHILADELPHIA — Late Wednesday night inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse, players glued to their eyes to the television screens, which showed a ballgame in Cincinnati that mattered to them. Craig Stammen had approached Jordan Zimmermann and told him, in reference to the blind scoop at first that contributed to the Nationals’ harebrained, 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, “Nice play. You should have seen it.”
Reporters gathered around backup catcher Jhonatan Solano. His friend Sandy Leon, another backup catcher, shouted across the room, “Enano!” – Spanish for dwarf. But Solano had been just tall enough to make a diving tag at home plate that prevented the tying run in the eighth inning.
The Nationals still had life left in their season Wednesday night, and they could use the entire flight to Miami to figure out how, exactly, that was possible. They needed Zimmermann’s acrobatics covering first, Solano’s desperate lunge, Ryan Zimmerman’s homer in the seventh and whatever dark art Manager Davey Johnson conjured as he steered them through the late innings.
All the decisions Johnson made and all the zany defensive plays the Nationals converted kept them in the picture for the National League’s second wild-card spot, 61 / 2 games behind a Reds team that lost in 16 innings to St. Louis. The Nationals started the night by not capitalizing on the early unraveling of diminished ace Roy Halladay, but they ended it in a handshake line after Rafael Soriano recorded his 38th save by striking out former National Roger Bernadina.
“We haven’t had that many games where those breaks have gone our way,” Stammen said. “It’s usually the other way around. So it’s finally fun to be on that side like it was last year. Yeah, it keeps us going.”
In between, the Nationals’ chances to lose and ways to win kept crashing into each other. Johnson let Zimmermann hit for himself with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, down by a run. “The guy leading the club in wins, has been the steady guy all year long, I’ve got to give him every chance to win that ballgame,” Johnson said. The squandering of the chance kept Zimmermann in the game for his league-leading 16th win and allowed him make one of the best plays of the Nationals’ season.
“It worked out in the end,” Zimmermann said, which may have been the most fitting postscript.
In the eighth inning, catcher Wilson Ramos led off with a walk. Johnson sent call-up Jeff Kobernus to pinch run for Ramos and Scott Hairston to pinch hit for Corey Brown against lefty reliever Jake Diekman. Despite more speed on the bases, more power at the plate and a favorable matchup, Johnson called for a sacrifice bunt. Hairston laid it down, and Kobernus stood on second base with one out.
As Diekman pitched to Steve Lombardozzi, Kobernus, who had swiped 84 bases over the past two seasons in the minor leagues, studied Diekman. Kobernus bolted on a 3-0 count and slid into third base without a throw from catcher Carlos Ruiz.
Now, Lombardozzi had to put the ball in play. With the infield in, looking for a pitch he could lift for a sacrifice fly, he chased a 3-1 fastball down and chopped it over the mound. Kobernus sprinted on contact. Chase Utley charged and fielded the ball with a backhand in front of second base. He fired home, but Kobernus slid across the plate as the ball settled into Ruiz’s mitt. The Nationals had taken a 3-2 lead.
“That’s on Kobe,” Lombardozzi said. “That’s a great read.”
“Lombo battled and put that ball in play,” Kobernus said.
In the seventh, Zimmermann’s last inning, Zimmerman bailed him out of a second-and-third, one-out jam when he turned Kevin Frandsen’s missile to third base into an out at home. The hard part, it seemed, had been taken care of. Zimmermann now only needed to retire Cesar Hernandez to escape the inning.
The quicksilver Hernandez hit a slow groundball to the right side. Zimmermann sprinted to cover first base. LaRoche let the ball roll past, thinking second baseman Lombardozzi sneaked behind him and snagged it.
“I didn’t think we had a chance at all,” Zimmerman said.
Lombardozzi’s running, sidearm throw skipped to Zimmermann. On the run himself, needing to place his right foot on the base, Zimmermann reached down to pick the throw just as Hernandez closed in. Somebody may as well have asked Zimmermann to pick a quarter off the ground by hanging his arm out the window of a moving car.
“Apparently on the replay, my head was up in the third deck,” Zimmermann said. “But I felt confident. I saw it, and it was a pretty easy hop, so I felt pretty confident.”
Not even looking at the ground, Zimmermann scooped the ball at the exact moment his foot hit the base, a half step before Hernandez reached. Mayberry had been sprinting home, but he slowed down and walked back to the dugout.
“No offense to Zim,” LaRoche said. “I don’t know that he could do that again.”
After the Nationals took the lead, they needed another defensive miracle. Darin Ruf walked to the plate in the eighth with Utley on third, Ruiz on first and one out. Stammen struck out Ruf swinging a slider in the dirt, but the ball squirted away from Solano.
As the ball tricked toward the on-deck circle on Solano’s left, Utley charged home. Solano scampered to retrieve the wild pitch. Stammen finishes his delivery off balance, and by the time he rushed to cover the plate, Solano disregarded him.
“I said, ‘If I throw the ball to Stammen, I’ve got no chance,’ ” Solano said.
Solano scurried back to the plate and lunged at Utley, both men diving head first as Stammen tumbled over around them.
Home plate umpire Chris Conroy pumped his first: out. The crowd groaned, but replays would later show Conroy had made the right call — Solano’s mitt hit Utley’s midsection a split-second before Utley’s fingers touched the dish. Solano screamed and pointed on the dugout, holding the ball in his outstretched right hand.
“I saved that run,” Solano said. “If they get that run, we could be playing right now.”
In the first two innings, the Nationals turned four walks, a hit batter, a single, two stolen bases and a sacrifice fly into a lonely run. As Halladay melted down, the Nationals both offered him a reprieve and approached the edge of mathematical possibility.
“I was feeling sorry for him first couple early innings,” Johnson said. “Then I was hating him as he went along because he got better.”
In the end, nothing about the night made much sense. But the Nationals didn’t care about what made sense at all.