Now, we’ll never know. Neither will Jordan Zimmermann.
Could Zimmermann have followed a 1-0 no-hitter win on Sunday with a 1-0 three-hit shutout win over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday night to drag his Washington Nationals back into a tie in the National League Division Series?
Could Zimmermann have pitched two of the greatest back-to-back games in the history of baseball?
With one more out, facing the great Giants leader Buster Posey, could he have recorded 54 outs in the span of 58 hitters in back-to-back victories that every Washington fan, baseball or otherwise, would have remembered as long as we follow sports?
No-hitter and playoff shutout, both 1-0: quite a pair.
No, now we’re not ever going to know. Because Nats Manager Matt Williams didn’t let it happen. Or didn’t allow Zimmermann to fail. Instead, he waved in Drew Storen from the bullpen. He interjected himself in a spot where he didn’t belong — a moment of baseball history, rather than a moment for a managerial decision.
“I never disagree with Matt,” Zimmermann said. “I’d like to stay out there and get that last out. Drew’s been lights out all year. It just didn’t work out.”
As it proves, the stakes were much larger than a blown save by Storen, who immediately gave up a single to Posey and an RBI double to Pablo Sandoval.
Baseball sometimes seems fueled by cruelty. The Washington Nationals won’t know either — won’t know how the shape of this whole series might have shifted much differently.
What we have instead is a 2-1 loss in 18 innings on a Brandon Belt homer off the last available Nats pitcher, Tanner Roark, and memories of Williams getting ejected in the 10th inning as thousands in the crowd of 44,035 thought, “If only he could have been thrown out one inning earlier.”
At times, rare times, you should let the game of baseball speak for itself, render its own verdict, acted out through its central characters, rather than impose yourself, your intelligence or intuition or analytics, on the moment.
Especially for managers, this is the moment when inaction is the great virtue.
Maybe Williams will learn. There’s almost nothing harder than abstaining from action when your job title is “manage,” not “sit there doing nothing and watch the season go down the drain.” But Saturday night at Nationals Park was an almost unique case when the context of the moment was greater, and more important, than the literal description of the baseball situation.
From the first day of spring training, Williams has been a man defined by his detailed plans, his schedules and his love of predictable order. It has served him and his team 96-wins well. But he is not very flexible.
“It’s what we have done all year,” Williams explained. “If he got in trouble in the ninth, that’s the plan. Drew has been perfect since he’s been our closer. . . . It didn’t work out. . . . Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But that’s what we had planned.”
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
There is strategy and there is theater. As strategy, there is some justification for taking out Zimmermann, who had just thrown his 100th pitch — a ball four to Joe Panik. Perhaps a fresh arm — a right-hander Storen with his 1.18 ERA this season, was a proper by-the-book move.
But, sometimes, there is also context and theater — and even the danger of messing with the lower-case but still haughty baseball gods.
No one is bigger than the game, they say. The crowd at Nationals Park stood and roared as Zimmermann walked off the mound. At that moment, he epitomized the game, was the game, as much as any player in Washington in many decades.
Williams is a rookie at his current job. As a superior player, only a couple of levels below the Hall of Fame, he could impact events directly. Perhaps, after all that Zimmermann had done on this chilly night, he simply could not stand to see him give up a hit that would make him the game’s loser.
By calling for Storen, he moved the burden — in case of defeat — to the manager himself. And Williams was merely asking a properly rested Storen to do his job.
Still, why do we revere sport in this culture? Why do we pass stories down through generations? Surely, at some level, it is about seeing the best-of-the-best test each other in the supreme moments of their sport. Nobody, it’s said, comes to ballgames to watch the umpires. To a lesser degree, that applies to managers. There are times, and Saturday night was one of them, when we don’t come to see them.
What we arrive to see, then stay to the end to witness, is performances like Zimmermann’s. As a brilliant sundown turned to a chilly playoff pitch blackness, Zimmermann glowed like an evening star. He had in his eyes, in his competitive heart and any other parts of his anatomy that opposing pitcher Tim Hudson and the San Francisco Giants might question, the defining quality of his athletic art: ice. The kind that freezes foes to death. Expressionless, he brought a packed-house chills.
“He just says, ‘Here it is. Hit it if you can.’ I love that,” said Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche before the game. Some pitchers have a huge variety of pitches. Zimmermann has a black suit — his fastball that tops around 95 mph and darts to every corner of the plate — and a pair of spit-shined black shoes — his quick, hard ruthlessly late-breaking slider. That is his entire wardrobe. A couple of times a game, if the need for style simply overwhelms him, he uses a changeup as a pocket handkerchief.
With a stiff wind blowing from the left field corner to the right field line, this was a night to love for a pitcher who lives to challenge. To left-handed hitters, of whom the Giants had six, Zimmermann had a precious advantage: Here it is, (94 mph on the outside corner), hit it (to the opposite field) — right into the wind. To right-handed hitters, he jammed fists and broke bats.
But above all, he sucked the Giants right into his battle plan. They had little choice but to meet his thrown down gauntlet. In the fourth inning, the famous heart of the Giants order came to the plate: Posey, Sandoval and Hunter Pence. They were retired on eight pitches. In the seventh, they went down on eight pitches. Maybe Williams forgot. Could Zimmermann have challenged them again and won?
In the ninth, we didn’t find out.
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