PITTSBURGH — Ryan Zimmerman lingered a few feet off second base, his left leg throbbing, studying Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Tony Watson. He knew exactly how long it took Watson to deliver a pitch, and he knew it would allow him to do something he never had previously done.
Hours earlier, Manager Davey Johnson had gathered the Washington Nationals for a rare team meeting. He bounced between themes, but more than anything Johnson wanted his players to stop pressing and have fun. Now, with the score tied in the eighth inning, Zimmerman would try to steal third base.
Zimmerman spearheaded an unlikely double steal and lifted the Nationals to a 5-4 victory at PNC Park. After Zimmerman’s dash, Tyler Moore’s redemptive sacrifice fly ensured the Nationals wouldn’t hang a fifth loss on ace Stephen Strasburg, who allowed four runs in seven strong innings.
Afterward, loud, electronic music pulsed in the clubhouse. Zimmerman walked in from the trainer’s room, an ice pack strapped to his left shin testifying how he had reached base. Players hunched at a table and stared at monitors showing their at-bats. Johnson strolled toward the food room.
“Meeting of the year,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “That’s how you win Manager of the Year.”
Before batting practice, Johnson summoned the Nationals for the first time this year. “It was probably more for me, so I feel like I’m doing something,” Johnson said. They had fallen to 15-15 on Friday night with a 14-strikeout performance, pressing against expectations. Johnson, 70, addressed the problems — a meager offense, trying too hard – with his deft touch.
“I wouldn’t call it a meeting,” Moore said. “He just kind of talked to us a little bit. He’s always got something good to say. Just to don’t press. We know we have a good team, but sometimes when you get in trouble, you press. Just go out there and go have fun and compete.”
The Nationals stranded 11 men in scoring position, but they scored more than three runs for the first time in a week and drew a season-high six walks. They trailed, 4-2, entering the sixth inning, but Wilson Ramos’s two-run, bases loaded single tied it.
Strasburg, despite a 3.13 ERA starting the day, took the mound under more scrutiny than usual. After his last start, when he allowed the Braves two runs and four walks over six innings, Johnson caused alarm by saying Strasburg felt “tightness” in his right forearm.
Saturday, he mixed excellence and inconsistency. He struck out eight, allowed five hits and walked one. The erratic delivery and command of his fastball seemed to persist. Strasburg dominated at times, flashing a change-up in the high-80s that could start over the edge of the plate and dart several inches out of the zone. But he lacked precision with his fastball, which hummed between 93 and 97 mph. He hit two batters with his fastball, and he also fired two heaters into the center of the strike zone, which Starling Marte and Clint Barmes turned into two-run home runs.
“I was happy,” Strasburg said. “In the past, if I gave up that many runs I feel like I would have had 100 pitches after the sixth.”
In the ninth, Zimmerman ended a seven-pitch at-bat by taking Watson’s 86-mph slider in the shin. He collapsed in a heap, then hobbled to first base and watched Adam LaRoche rip a line-drive single into right.
After LaRoche’s single, Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle visited Watson. During the timeout, Zimmerman and LaRoche conferenced with third base coach Trent Jewett. After Jewett asked Zimmerman if he was okay, he reminded Zimmerman he had the green light if he could get a good jump.
Zimmerman had stolen 30 bases in 1,006 career games before Saturday afternoon. He had not even tried to steal third since his rookie season. But Nationals advance scouts had timed Watson’s delivery to the plate at a glacial 1.8 seconds.
“We know what guys people like me actually have a chance to steal bases on,” Zimmerman said.
As Hurdle trundled back to the home dugout, Zimmerman rubbed his leg. “He was playing that up,” Johnson said, grinning.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise that it looked like he was one in deep pain,” Jewett said. “Had it been [Denard] Span, there would have been a lot more attention paid to him. But we got a guy limping.”
As Watson took the sign on 1-1, he gave Zimmerman an obligatory peek. Infielders strayed from second base. Zimmerman took another step. Watson kicked his front leg. Zimmerman bolted, and LaRoche followed behind.
Martin popped out of his crouch, cocked his arm and held the ball. LaRoche scooted to second.
“I would have thought those were the last two guys who were going to steal,” Moore said.
Now, Moore had another chance to swing the game. In both the sixth and seventh innings, Moore had come to bat with the bases loaded and struck out. After one at-bat, Zimmerman found him in the dugout and told him, “He made a perfect pitch. It’s gonna happen.”
Facing a 1-2 count, Moore told himself to cut down on his swing. “But I was trying to do that in the other at-bats, too,” he said. He fought off a 94-mph sinker. Watson tried another, and Moore lofted it the other way, into the right field corner.
Travis Snider’s strong throw forced Zimmerman to slide, but he beat it with time to spare. As Zimmerman walked into the dugout, only Dan Haren and a few coaches greeted him. The rest of the team gravitated toward the guy who rebounded from two crucial strikeouts.
“T-Mo’s been great,” Zimmerman said. “Talk about a kid who anywhere else would probably get 400, 500, 600 at-bats. He comes here and does everything we ask and more, and he’s always ready to play.”