Life works in mysterious ways. Jordan Zimmermann is the author of the most memorable pitching performance in Washington Nationals history, a no-hitter on the final day of last season. Steven Souza Jr. ended that game with arguably the greatest defensive play in team history, a diving catch of a flyball in left field to notch the final out. Both were homegrown products of Washington’s 2007 draft, but the Nationals reluctantly traded Souza this offseason, netting prospects Joe Ross and Trea Turner.
So, of course, the first time Souza returned to Nationals Park with the Tampa Bay Rays was Wednesday, a day Zimmermann was starting. And coincidentally, Souza spoiled Zimmermann’s start. He had the first hit off Zimmermann in the second inning. He smashed a long solo home run off Zimmermann in the fifth. And in the Nationals’ messy and briefly rain-delayed 5-0 loss , Souza added a “little league home run,” scoring on his bunt single in the eighth thanks to throwing errors by Blake Treinen and Bryce Harper.
“It’s fun competing against your friend,” Souza said of Zimmermann.
Despite the defeat, the Nationals remained 1
Zimmermann allowed three runs on eight hits, but he struck out a season-high eight batters. The Nationals offered little support in the field or at the plate. Shortstop Ian Desmond’s error, his 15th of the season, allowed a run to score in a high-stress sixth inning for Zimmermann. The Nationals’ lineup, which had Clint Robinson hitting cleanup and Denard Span sitting out with back tightness, managed only two hits — a night after smashing a team-record 23 against the same pitching staff.
Harper’s single in the fourth, Desmond’s infield chopper an inning later and Michael A. Taylor’s two walks — one of which was intentional — were the offensive output. Only one Nationals player reached second base.
“It happens,” Manager Matt Williams said. “If I had the formula or anybody had that formula, we’d certainly do something about it. We’d love to get 23 hits every day, score a whole bunch of runs. Unfortunately, the way baseball is, that doesn’t happen. That’s why we play 162. That’s why there’s another one tomorrow.”
Zimmermann, too, has been inconsistent recently. He allowed 10 runs over his past two starts. His command was much improved Wednesday but still not enough.
“A couple solo home runs,” he said. “I can live with that. Just two mistakes to those guys.”
As Souza stepped to the plate with two outs in the second inning, the crowd stood and applauded, and Souza stepped out of the batter’s box to soak it in and tip his helmet. The at-bat began with a 95-mph fastball taken for a ball. Souza lined the next pitch into left field for a single.
“The way the fans responded, that was pretty emotional, pretty high moment for me,” Souza said. “I know that Jordan deserves all of the honor and I deserve nothing, really, but that was pretty cool.”
In the fifth, Souza hammered a hanging slider from Zimmermann over the visitors’ bullpen. Souza’s home run was his 13th of the season, most among American League rookies. Two batters later, Curt Casali hit another solo shot out to left.
“Obviously, I want to get him out,” Zimmermann said of Souza. “I couldn’t do it tonight. First at-bat he gets a base hit. In the second at-bat, I hang a slider, and he makes me pay. He’s a good hitter. He’s still really, really young , and he’s probably going to turn into a really good ballplayer. But obviously if you make mistakes, they make you pay at this level, and he did that.”
Facing the Nationals in a National League park, the American League’s Rays tried an unconventional approach Wednesday to combat their inability to use a designated hitter. Reliever Steve Geltz started instead of originally scheduled starter Matt Andriese. Cash said the Rays wanted to use a pinch hitter early in the game to try and score runs.
They made the substitution in the third inning after Geltz retired all six batters he faced, but the move backfired when Zimmermann got pinch hitter Brandon Guyer, a Herndon High graduate, to ground into a double play and then struck out Kevin Kiermaier.
In the bottom of the inning, the Rays inserted Andriese. The Nationals could do little against him for the next four innings or against two more relievers. Meanwhile, Zimmermann allowed one more run in the sixth. After giving up two singles, Zimmermann got Logan Forsythe to hit a double play ball to Desmond. But Desmond bobbled the attempt, and Evan Longoria scored to push the Rays’ lead to 3-0. Zimmermann regrouped and got Souza to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Before the rain came in the middle of the eighth inning and delayed the game for 27 minutes, Souza notched one more hit against his former team. With a runner on and two outs in the eighth, Souza took advantage of the wet conditions to force Treinen to make a tough play to his right.
“If it’s dry, I’m probably not even thinking about it, to be honest,” Souza said.
The ball died to the left of the mound. The reliever threw over Danny Espinosa at first base. Harper chased down the ball and fired home, also wide of his target and into the dugout.
“It’s raining like cats and dogs and other creatures,” Williams said. “Slick ball. But if [Treinen] throws it on the bag, I think he’s out.”
Souza jogged home on the bizarre play. It was only apt that it was him tormenting Zimmermann and the Nationals.