PHILADELPHIA — If this season has proved anything about Ryan Zimmerman, it is that he cannot be counted out. The Washington Nationals stuck him in left field, and he learned how to play a new position while his broken thumb healed. They yanked him back to his old position, the one that makes his battered shoulder plead no, and he gritted his teeth and did it. He arrives at the park at 2 p.m. every day so he can practice fielding with bench players, and every night he takes his position and risks embarrassment for the good of his team.
And so Zimmerman had faced more dire circumstances than what he encountered Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, when in the 10th inning, with the game on the line, he batted with an 0-2 count and Phillies reliever Jake Diekman’s 100-mph fastball streaking toward him. Zimmerman met the pitch like he has every challenge this season, head on, with everything he has.
Zimmerman scorched a single into center field, the pivotal blow in the Nationals’ 5-3, 10-inning victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. The 24th game-winning RBI of his career to come in the eighth inning or later kept Nationals tied with the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East.
“He’s been clutch his whole career,” said Stephen Strasburg, who allowed two runs in 5 2 / 3 innings. “He’s had to overcome some adversity that not too many guys have to go through. He’s the ultimate professional. He’s handled it great. He’s just going to go out there and do whatever he can to help the team win every day.”
Jayson Werth, who drove home the Nationals’ first three runs, scored on Diekman’s ensuing wild pitch to extend the Nationals’ lead to two runs. Rafael Soriano made mincemeat of the Phillies in a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th, notching his 22nd save and lowering his ERA under 1.00.
The Nationals entered the bottom of the sixth inning leading 3-0, and in total command. But Strasburg waned in the sixth and Tyler Clippard faltered in the eighth as the Phillies tied the score at 3 on Ben Revere’s single, nearly knocking the Nationals into second place before Washington rallied in the 10th.
Ross Detwiler’s perfect ninth inning pushed the game into extra innings. Denard Span sparked the rally with a walk against Diekman, a flame-throwing left-hander who sprays pitches with the accuracy of the Phanatic’s hot dog gun. Werth moved ahead in the count, 3-0, and with a left-hander hitting behind him, tried to dictate the outcome himself. But hit a chopper to second.
“The fact that he doesn’t command his pitches makes him even nastier,” Werth said. “I swung at a 3-0 heater right down the middle at 99. It had a little sink on it. When you swing 3-0, the whole idea is to not get beat. And I got beat.”
Chase Utley tried to get the lead runner rather than taking the out. Span slid in ahead of his rushed flip, and the Nationals had a threat. Adam LaRoche struck out, which left the inning to Zimmerman.
“The sequences and the pitches he threw to the hitters before, he didn’t really have any pattern. He threw Rochie, I think, all offspeed and one fastball. I really didn’t know what to expect. I haven’t faced him much, either.”
Zimmerman watched one fastball and fouled off another. He felt like he took a good hack. Zimmerman sat on a fastball — if he had looked for an offspeed pitch, he never would have caught up to a heater.
Diekman rifled a fastball that had the stadium’s radar guns on high alert. Zimmerman smoked it to center field. Span darted home. As he rounded first, Zimmerman pointed at the Nationals dugout.
“I think in those situations, I’ve been in a lot of them, and the biggest thing I try to do is keep it simple and not try to do too much,” Zimmerman said. “Some people try to drive the ball, or some people try to hit home runs. That’s when you get yourself in trouble. You’ve just got to try to make good contact, try and hit the ball up the middle and hopefully good things will happen.”
Diekman then threw a fastball in the dirt with Desmond at the plate that bounded away from catcher Cameron Rupp, and Werth scampered home to give the Nationals a 5-3 lead.
Werth scored the final run, and he drove in the first three. Anthony Rendon led off the sixth with a walk, and Werth followed. Since Werth departed Philadelphia after the 2010 season, he and left-hander Cole Hamels have engaged in several epic confrontations, and Saturday night provided one more.
“You play with somebody as long we did, meaningful games, games in October, win a World Series, those bonds, I don’t know what you call that,” Werth said. “It’s not really a friend. But we’ll have a common bond for our whole life, you know? But it’s fun to compete against those guys. I feel like I know them inside and out. And they probably feel the same way. It’s fun. It’s challenging.”
Werth fell behind in the count, 0-2. He took a close fastball for a ball and took a cutter in the dirt. Hamels tried to finish him off with a 95-mph fastball. Werth crushed it over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field.
“I hit a lot of homers to right field here,” Werth said. “I kind of made my money hitting homers to right field here.”
Boos cascaded from the seats as Werth circled the bases. A fan chucked the ball back into play. Werth, who had hit his fifth homer in a span of 37 plate appearances, could not have cared less.
“I barely even hear it,” Werth said. “I notice it, but it’s way in the background. It doesn’t really have any bearing on my game. I will say, the first time I ever got a really good ‘Werth-less’ chant going was my sophomore year in high school, in a basketball game. I poured in 35 that night. So I’m always up for a good ‘Werth-less’ chant.”
Strasburg wrapped up the first half of his season with those 5 2 / 3 plodding, resilient innings. Hamels outlasted him, but Strasburg outdueled him with the help of Werth.
It was not Strasburg’s best outing — not even close. He could not finish the sixth inning despite Manager Matt Williams’s generous leash, and lefty reliever Jerry Blevins bailed him out. For a while, Strasburg was impressive in a way he usually isn’t. He rarely overwhelmed the Phillies. He needed to solve himself and figure out how to strand runners while struggling with his comman. He had to survive. And then just as Strasburg began to dominate, he flagged.
Leaning on his curveball at the beginning and change-up late, Strasburg piled up nine more strikeouts, which pushed his National League-high total to 149.
“Sometimes, you’re going to be a little bit off,” Strasburg said. “But you just got to keep pitching.”