Again, Nats Are Left Watching
Sunday, September 28, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 27 -- He saw it, but he didn't let himself feel it. From all the pandemonium, Ryan Zimmerman just walked away. It had all happened so fast: A crack up the middle, a diving play by the shortstop, Zimmerman's head-down sprint toward first, a game-ending double play and, like that, an iconic moment in this town's baseball history. Right there on the field, Philadelphia burst into pennant-clinching euphoria. Zimmerman, well up the first base line, walked right past it.
You couldn't script a crazier end to a game, or a crazier resolution for a division championship. Philadelphia earned a 4-3 victory Saturday -- and the National League East title -- against the Washington Nationals with all the right variables, flipping a near-blown lead into instant celebration. Zimmerman, the No. 3 hitter, was up. Perfect closer Brad Lidge -- at the time, 40 for 40 in save opportunities -- was on the mound. Some 45,177 at Citizens Bank Park were quivering, having watched a 4-2 ninth-inning lead slip away as four straight hitters reached base. At that juncture, the game could tilt either way: This one was ending with either regret or champagne.
Third pitch he saw, Zimmerman pounded it up the middle. "I hit it pretty good," he said.
Just so happens that a gymnast plays shortstop for the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins sprang to his left, slid to his knees to field the ball, shuffled it to second baseman Chase Utley, and watched first baseman Ryan Howard catch the 6-4-3 double play with his hands already raised in celebration.
A jumping pile-up of Phillies formed on the field, Lidge and Rollins in the middle. Fireworks blasted. Music played so loud, nobody could identify it. Fans roared. The win that produced Philadelphia's second straight postseason trip -- just one game shy of the season's conclusion -- created a scene of pure rapture. And for that, Zimmerman had the most unsettling vantage point. He was nowhere close, but just a few feet away.
As Zimmerman walked some 100 yards back to the losing dugout, he turned for just a second to the commotion. And that was it. Then, he trained his eyes back on the dugout, walking slowly, and disappeared into the stadium's tunnel. Some dozen Washington players stood along the railing to watch -- a reminder of how opposite seasons end. Manager Manny Acta, like Zimmerman, turned away. "I don't watch celebrations unless it's my own one," Acta said. "I just take off."
"I didn't sprint back in," Zimmerman said, "but I wasn't sitting out there watching."
The Nationals' younger players, though, wanted to observe. Starter John Lannan -- who'd lasted five innings and issued three runs, including a fifth-inning solo home run to Jayson Werth -- reemerged from the clubhouse to check things out. Fellow rookie Collin Balester called it a "huge picture of what you want to do."
"That was unbelievable," Balester said. "The crowd was getting all into it, and everyone [was] just acting like little kids over there, just jumping all over each other. Just seeing it today, I wish we could start the season over again."
This game only had significance because of what happened earlier in the day. A win by the second-place New York Mets, which finished just as this one began, was denoted by a bunch of yellow dots on the Citizens Bank right field scoreboard: NYM 2, FLA 0. If the Phillies lost, they'd have had just a one-game lead entering today.
To celebrate, then, Philadelphia needed to win, and it needed a big performance from 45-year-old starter Jamie Moyer. The oldest player in baseball responded with one of his best games, holding Washington to one run in six innings. In his trademark way, he baffled Washington with his precision. He retired the side in the first and fourth. He opened the fifth by inducing Wil Nieves into a comebacker with a 67-mph curve; Moyer threw harder to first than he threw to home. He ended the sixth by striking out Nieves, with two on, with an 81-mph high fastball.
Then, Philadelphia's bullpen took hold of the lead. Reliever Ryan Madson gave back a run in the eighth, cutting the Phillies' lead to 3-2. But Philadelphia scored an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, meaning that Lidge entered the ninth with heavy metal music and a comfortable cushion. But a single, a walk, and two more singles removed that comfort and imbued the final play with pitch-perfect tension.
After the game, Zimmerman quietly changed clothing, talked with a few reporters and exited the stadium with a few teammates. The Phillies, meantime, were still on the field, soaked in booze. Moyer, under the lights and soft rain, wore a division championship T-shirt and held a drink.
"We all, as players, we dream," he said. "We really dream about this game. Playing as a little boy, your boyhood -- even when you're 45, you still dream. And I gotta believe that Jimmy and Chase had that type of dream before: To win a game on a double play like that, it's pretty awesome."