“Too much,” he said with a smile later, describing his excitement level. “It was too much.”
But for a team that spent so much of this season downtrodden, cowering under the expectations, joy has been a rarity. For a team that sold off two key players just a day earlier in an unofficial sign of surrender, a team the math suggests — and most believe — are decidedly out of playoff contention, a little joy is never a bad thing. And that joy has not evaporated just yet, in large part because of the heroics of young players such as Soto, whose two-out double in the ninth completed a gritty at-bat against a closer throwing 99-mph sinkers that gave Zimmerman the chance in the first place.
“He’ll do it again, a lot more,” Zimmerman said. “I think that shows you what kind of person and player he is to be able to do it.”
The whole thing was improbable. The day began with four laborious innings from Stephen Strasburg, who allowed five runs on seven hits in his first start since July 20, second since June 8. His velocity was not as high as normal — 93 to 95 mph, not 95 to 97 — and plummeted as his pitch count rose. Normally, those things suggest an injury for Strasburg. This time, he and his manager said, they didn’t.
“I don’t know if it’s rust,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just endurance. Hopefully that’s what it is.”
Even as Strasburg struggled, the Nationals stayed close. When the Phillies opened a three-run lead in the third, the Nationals used an RBI double from Bryce Harper and RBI singles from Zimmerman and Matt Wieters to tie it. When the Phillies took a 5-4 lead in the fourth, Harper drove in Trea Turner to tie the game in the bottom of the inning.
After the Phillies scored in the sixth and seventh, the Nationals got one back when Wilmer Difo tripled and Andrew Stevenson hit a sacrifice fly to score him. Matt Grace, who was supposed to be unavailable Wednesday, struck out Justin Bour with the bases loaded in the ninth to keep the deficit at one heading to the bottom of the inning.
Fireballing Seranthony Dominguez retired Harper and Anthony Rendon to start the ninth. Then Soto fell into the kind of two-strike count that becomes debilitating against someone throwing so hard. He fouled off pitches. Then he turned on one and sneaked it just inside the right field line for a double that gave Zimmerman a chance — a chance he saw as pressure-free.
“He’s supposed to get me out,” Zimmerman said, citing the righty’s stats and nasty, sinking stuff. Absent expectations (if only in his mind), Zimmerman drove a high flyball to right center, one that appeared to clear the fence but bounced upward ambiguously enough that the umpires initially ruled it a double. Martinez had made up his mind to challenge, no matter what his video team said, a decision so easy to make that when he went out to home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom, the veteran umpire joked, “Are you sure?”
He was sure, and he was right: Video review clearly showed the ball was a home run. Soto — who had long since jogged home with the tying run — charged after Zimmerman in unbridled and uninformed glee. Had he hugged him, the whole thing would have been rendered moot.
“That would have been awful,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, like so many other veterans on this team, has felt the pressure build this season. He knows what was supposed to happen and watched things fall apart. He has never been one to get too high or low, the consummate professional, the one with the experience to wave away overexcited newcomers when the moment calls for it. Even with the victory, the Nationals remained 7 1/2 games out in the National League East. They are 4½ games back of the Phillies, though. Their playoff chances are bleak, and one swing — even one that moved Zimmerman two behind all-time walk-off home run leader Jim Thome — doesn’t change their sometimes depressing reality.
But Soto and Stevenson and the flurry of younger relievers on this team do not feel the same thing. And frankly, the sell-off might have lifted the pressure from these veterans, too. Now, their season declared dead, a rally would defy expectations. The pressure, as with Dominguez, might at least partially be on the teams in front of them.
And this team — which finds itself here because it has needed comebacks far too often and because too many have been futile — has not been one to roll over this year. Perhaps grit only grows from disappointment. Perhaps the Nationals have experienced to much disappointment for the grit to matter. Maybe, if not this year, it still does somehow.
“[Zimmerman] always competes and never gives up. That’s what I probably love of him, and I’m here with him,” Soto said. “If he never give up, I don’t.”
Neither do the Nationals, as little as it might matter. But a few moments of joy are better than nothing. And this team’s first series win in three weeks feels better than the alternative.
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