The reality in which the Washington Nationals live at this point, in a year that has gone horribly awry, is that the season seems to hang in the balance of every game they play. Another loss Friday night, coming on the heels of a complete bamboozling Friday afternoon, and their fortunes would look bleaker by the minute.
But a win, a victory seized on their second walk-off home run in as many nights, again changes things. It again reignites their hope that all of the mistakes and missed opportunities, all of the poor play and losses that have piled up these last four months, can still be rectified.
Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nationals a 2-1 win Friday night with his 12th home run of the season, salvaging a split of their doubleheader with the New York Mets and rewarding a superb performance by Ross Ohlendorf.
And as Zimmerman’s home run, his first extra-base hit in 47 at-bats, sailed into the right field seats, the Nationals’ dugout erupted. They poured over the railing. They could forget their flat 11-0 loss to the Mets from earlier in the day and focus on their teammate’s arrival at home plate.
That, was familiar.
“After how that first game went, that was a huge win,” Zimmerman said. “That’s baseball. Unfortunately, it’s a roller coaster ride, and we’ve been down it more than we’ve been up this year.
“But we’ve just got to keep going. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We’ve got to go out there every day and try to win.”
The home run was Zimmerman’s ninth career walk-off homer. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, at age 28, Zimmerman now has more walk-off homers before his 30th birthday than any player in major league history.
But the Nationals’ third baseman wouldn’t have been in position to toss his batting helmet aside and dive into the pile of teammates awaiting him at home plate had it not been for the work of Ohlendorf, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano — who redeemed himself one night after forcing the Nationals into a tie game despite a four-run lead entering the ninth inning.
The Nationals’ offense again produced little, though they were facing stiff competition in Mets ace Matt Harvey. They scored their only run on a fluky error by the Mets that started as a spectacular play and ended as a run-scoring one. With Jayson Werth on second base and Ian Desmond on first in the bottom of the fifth, Wilson Ramos hit a hard ground ball up the middle.
Mets shortstop Justin Turner made a tremendous shovel pass with his glove to second baseman Daniel Murphy to start a potential inning-ending double play, but Murphy’s throw was wild and hit Ramos on his way to first. On the other end of the diamond, Werth trotted home. In a small way, the Nationals reached Harvey.
Meanwhile, Ohlendorf tossed seven strong innings, allowing a lone run on a pair of doubles in the fourth inning, and matched Harvey as best he could.
The Nationals’ right-hander who began the season in Triple-A Syracuse, has been one of their best stories this year. When he descended the mound after the seventh, having thrown more pitches than he had in a major league game since 2009, Ohlendorf’s ERA sat at 1.87.
“Exceptional,” said manager Davey Johnson, who spent most of his post-game press conference discussing the Nationals’ decision to option right-handed reliever Drew Storen to Triple-A Syracuse.
“He pitched his heart out, he was basically out of gas in the last inning but I had more confidence in him locating the ball and changing speeds to get through it.”
He might’ve pitched his way into the Nationals’ rotation, had they not decided ultimately to get their roster back down to 25 after the doubleheader by sending out Storen.
One of the options on the table was for the team to send Taylor Jordan down after his start on Sunday in order to help elongate his availability with shorter starts that would conserve innings before his 150- 160-inning limit. That would’ve likely opened a spot in the rotation for Ohlendorf, one he’s pitched well enough to deserve. For now, though, he’ll return to the Nationals’ bullpen.
“I certainly feel good about what I’ve done when I’ve gotten to start,” Ohlendorf said. “I feel good with how I’ve done out of the bullpen, too. I’ve been really happy with how I’ve been pitching. I just need to keep going.
“I knew (coming into this season) that I’d felt a lot better than I’ve felt in a while. I don’t know if I expected to do as well as I have. But the season is not over yet.”
For one more night, after one more win inched them one game back closer to a .500 record at 50-54, they tried to remember that fact.