“Thank God we won,” Zimmerman said. “It would have been hard for me to sleep tonight.”
Following Gio Gonzalez’s dazzling Nationals Park debut, a ninth-inning disaster that enhanced angst over Drew Storen’s extended absence and a wasted opportunity to avoid extra innings, the Nationals won when Alfredo Simon bounced a two-out wild pitch. On a chilly day, under a blue sky before a sellout crowd of 40,907, the Nationals won their third straight game and, one week into the marathon season, took control of first place in the National League East.
Some things stayed the same, like Teddy losing in the Presidents’ Race. (“What’s the poor guy got to do to get a win?” Jayson Werth asked.) But the Nationals’ 5-2 start gave them their best start since baseball returned to Washington, letting Zimmerman sleep easy after a hard day.
It could have been simple. Gonzalez fired seven scoreless innings, striking out seven batters while he allowed two hits, walked none and knocked the first hit of his career to boot. After struggling to find control last week in Chicago, Gonzalez peppered the strike zone with 94-mph fastballs and hairpin backdoor curves on Thursday.
Twice, Gonzalez struck out 2010 MVP Joey Votto swinging at a fastball on the outside corner. He threw 64 of 97 pitches for strikes and worked to three balls only three times, not once from the second through the sixth. He gave catcher Wilson Ramos effusive praise afterward, after calling off only one of his signals all day.
“They welcomed me with great open arms here,” Gonzalez said. “The fans showed a lot of love. What better to do than give it back?”
Gonzalez constantly disparaged his own hitting this spring, but he started the first Nationals rally. He lashed a line-drive single to left and smiled his way to first base, looking into the Nationals’ dugout at the other starting pitchers. He started a rally that ended with Adam LaRoche’s bases-loaded, two-out, two-run single.
The Nationals carried their 2-0 lead into the ninth. Earlier in the day, Storen had chatted with reporters, his spirits high but his arm in a sling, about how he had hoped to hold off surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow until the offseason. Instead, he will miss about two months, during which time the Nationals will hand the closer’s job to Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge.
Wednesday, it was Lidge’s turn. Lidge walked Votto with one out, and “whenever you have a two-run lead, you don’t want to walk anybody,” Lidge said. Scott Rolen smashed a double to left, and Lidge intentionally walked Jay Bruce to load the bases.
Up came Ryan Ludwick. Lidge jumped ahead in the count, 1-2, and threw a slider inside. Ludwick smoked it to the left side of the infield.
“I probably went to the well one too many times with the slider,” Lidge said.
Still, the ball was headed at Zimmerman, one of the best third basemen in baseball, the 2009 Gold Glove winner. He had botched two earlier plays, bobbling one ball for an error and letting another ball sneak under his glove. Surely, he would snag this one.
“When that ball was hit down there, I was happy as a clam,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said.
Zimmerman went down on one knee and tried to pick it with his backhand. But again, Zimmerman missed. The ball scooted to left field. Two runs scored. The park hushed.
“Those are plays that I expect myself to make,” Zimmerman said. “I hope my teammates expect me to make those plays as well. They’re not routine plays. But they’re plays that I think I should make. I need to do a better job of that and help Brad and those guys out.”
Lidge held the Reds at two runs, but he had missed his chance at a second save and prevented Gonzalez from earning his first Nationals win. “It’s probably toughest because, just the way Gio pitched,” Lidge said.
The Nationals could have won in the ninth but wasted another chance with the bases loaded. Danny Espinosa came to bat with the bases loaded but hit into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning, dropping the Nationals to 3 for 15 with the bags juiced this season.
Long reliever Craig Stammen cleaned house in the 10th, striking out the side on only 10 pitches, setting up a unique walk-off rally. Zimmerman led off with a chance to atone, but had to settle for absorbing a sinker from Simon in the shoulder. One out later, Werth pushed him to second with a two-strike single. Xavier Nady’s groundout moved them to second and third.
On third base, Zimmerman thought back to the Nationals’ pregame scouting meeting. Simon induces many swing-and-misses with his splitter, which made him a candidate to uncork a wild pitch.
“You’re alert right there,” Zimmerman said. “You’re aware he’s thrown a lot of dirtballs.”
The second pitch Simon threw to Bernadina bounced in front of catcher Devin Mesoraco and trickled away. Bernadina saw the ball roll about 15 feet to the right, not far enough, he thought. He put his hand up to hold Zimmerman.
“I think you’d like the ball to bounce a little bit further than it did,” said Werth, who scored on a game-ending wild pitch last season.
Zimmerman, though, made his read. Instinct told him he could make it.
“It’s those things that you’ve done since you were 10 years old,” Zimmerman said. “The ball has to go away enough where you think you can make it. Bernie hit three balls hard today, so I wasn’t going to take the bat out of his hands.”
And so Zimmerman scrambled. Mesoraco scooped up the ball and threw to Simon. Zimmerman slid under the tag easily. Players streamed from the dugout and mobbed Zimmerman. He escaped from the pile and smiled, a very bad day having ended very well.