By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009
The Washington Nationals had no game plan to defend themselves against the guy who beat them yesterday. They had no game plan because, based on logic alone, they didn't need one. The guy who beat them had all the odds that a tree has against a lumberjack. Just speaking in general, 31-year-old American League relief pitchers don't hit all that often. And on the rare occasion they even get to try, they don't hit all that well.
But yesterday, the improbabilities aligned just so, and the Orioles squeezed out a 4-2, 12-inning win against the Nationals in front of 22,556 at Nationals Park only because a pitcher named Danys Báez -- a veteran of three career at-bats -- took a turn at the plate with two outs in the 12th, dribbled an infield hit down the third base line, and ended up scoring the winning run.
If you had a $2 bet on Báez finishing with a hit total equal to anybody in Washington's lineup, go ahead and start house-hunting for ocean-front property. Indeed, Báez, until yesterday, hadn't come to the plate in 2 years 11 months and 2 days. Kip Wells, the losing pitcher, called Báez's hit, at various points during a glum postgame interview, a "swinging bunt" and "just a pitcher's hack."
Wells, trying to extend the Nationals' run of abnormally solid relief work, had already pitched a scoreless 1 2/3 innings by the time he faced Báez. He didn't want to remind himself that he was facing a pitcher. He just tried to keep the ball down and away. Báez greeted the second pitch with a weak swing; the ball bounced straight down, almost near the plate, hopped once, and deadened like a rolling watermelon. Neither Wells, coming off the mound, nor Ryan Zimmerman, charging from third, had a play on the ball.
"He chunked it into the ground and ended up with a hit," Wells said. "That's not the end of the world. You have two outs and a man on first."
Even with Báez 270 feet from home, Wells retained an easy chance to preserve the 2-2 tie. Much was at stake. Though Washington's lineup dealt with an uncharacteristic cold spell -- it had just one hit in the final eight innings -- its pitching staff kept the game close. Starter Jordan Zimmermann made efficient work of the Baltimore lineup, throwing 97 pitches in seven innings and scattering two runs. Making his seventh start of the year, Zimmermann corrected almost all of the flaws. After spending some extra time in the bullpen before the game -- a correction suggested by pitching coach Randy St. Claire -- Zimmerman made it through the first inning 1-2-3.
"This was the best I felt so far since I've been here," Zimmermann said.
He allowed a Nolan Reimold homer in the second and another Baltimore run in the third, but Zimmermann kept things clean after that. In only one inning did he face more than four batters. Meantime, Ryan Zimmerman tied the game with one swing. All night, Baltimore starter Rich Hill had been treating the Nationals to a heavy dose of curveballs. He relied on that pitch to strike out the side in the third. Only as good as his best pitch, Hill had his best pitch working. But in the fourth, Nick Johnson led off with a single to right. That brought up Zimmerman, who watched the first three pitches. All were pitches on the corner. Two were strikes.
With the count 1-2, Hill went to a fastball. Zimmerman was waiting for a curve, but it didn't matter. The pitch crossed the plate at 88 mph. It left the yard in a hurry. Zimmerman stroked it to the opposite field, sending the two-run homer just a row beyond the National League scoreboard in right center. It was Zimmerman's 11th home run of the year. And it tied the game at 2.
That left the game in the hands of the Washington bullpen. In bizarre fashion, those hands proved capable. Ron Villone, Jason Bergmann and Joe Beimel took care of three innings, allowing two combined hits. Wells pitched a scoreless 11th, and came on for the 12th.
Báez, who had already pitched two scoreless innings, said: "I was trying to make contact with two outs. I was ready to go out and face the hitters in the next inning. I was trying to make contact, looking for a fastball. I got lucky. I made contact, and the ball went to the right place."
After that, everything went wrong for the Nationals. Baltimore's next two hitters -- Brian Roberts and Adam Jones -- responded with doubles. The first hit the chalk in left, then bounced foul for a ground-rule double. The next was fair by a few feet and scored two.
"Unfortunately, like I said, stuff like that just happens," Wells said. "It's not necessarily anybody's fault but mine, but on the same token, two balls down the line stay fair and the swinging bunt by the pitcher and you give up two runs and we lose, and you guys are all standing in front of my locker. In my case, I can't try to go out there and do more the next time. I can't try to overanalyze it."