PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals’ season charged onward on Wednesday night when their thrilling 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies pushed one more breath of life into them. And then they stared at the television screens in the clubhouse hoping a Cincinnati Reds loss might give them another.
When the Reds lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in 16 innings, the Nationals had a flight to Miami and a day off to digest the fact that they were now 6.5 games back in the wild card race and had just completed one of their finest defensive games of the season.
One of the few games this year in which almost every play went the way they hoped it would.
“We haven’t had that many games where those breaks have gone our way,” said right-hander Craig Stammen. “It’s usually the other way around. So it’s finally fun to be on that side like it was last year.”
The Nationals could’ve pointed to any number of clean plays on this night. There was Ryan Zimmerman charging a bouncer in the seventh inning to get an out at home, and Jayson Werth playing no-doubles defense in the ninth and running down a rocket off the bat of Cody Asche.
But in truth the game rested on two defensive plays. Two plays that made you hold your breath, cross your fingers, grab your seat cushion and hang on for dear life.
First there was Steve Lombardozzi and Jordan Zimmermann saving a run in the seventh inning with a spectacular play at first base. Then there was Jhonatan Solano, listed at 5-foot-9 in the Nationals’ media guide, scampering to grab a wild pitch on a strikeout and leaping with full extension to tag Chase Utley at home plate while Craig Stammen tumbled over them in the eighth.
“Just huge plays saving us runs,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the first inning put the Nationals on the board, and left him feeling as though they’d score a dozen before the game was out. “If Zim doesn’t pick that it’s obviously a run. Solano’s is a run.”
Lombardozzi ranged far to his left to field a grounder off the bat of Cesar Hernandez, a speedy runner, while Adam LaRoche made an effort on the ball. He pulled off, though, knowing that Lombardozzi would have a better angle on the throw as Zimmermann sprinted his way to first base.
Zimmermann hoped Lombardozzi would hit him in the chest with the throw. Lombardozzi just wanted it to be on-line. When it bounced, the right-hander reached his glove down, closed one eye, tilted his head to the sky and squeezed. Then he lifted it in the air and kept right on running into the Nationals’ dugout.
“I knew my only play was to scoop the ball and have my foot on the base at the same time,” Zimmermann said. “I knew I was going to be at the bag, (but) then he threw it in the dirt. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Rochie. He taught me everything I know over there. Apparently on the replay, my head was up in the third deck. But I felt confident. I saw it, and it was a pretty easy hop, so I felt pretty confident.”
“Just an awesome play on both sides,” LaRoche said. “No offense to Zim, I don’t know that he could do that again.”
“I told Jordan, ‘Nice play,you should have seen it,’” joked Stammen. “He kind of one-eyed it.”
John Mayberry Jr. was rounding third base. If Zimmermann doesn’t pick it, the Phillies surely would’ve scored. They would’ve gone ahead. Perhaps it’d have been the game winner, another blow to the Nationals’ playoff hopes.
Instead they jogged off the field smothering one another in high fives, the damage every loss can do obvious in their expressions.
“I didn’t think we had a chance at all to begin with,” said Zimmerman, who was screaming for his teammates to be aware of Mayberry. “Of course, they’re not going to hear me. I figured (Hernandez) is going to beat it out and (Mayberry’s) going to score.
“It was a great play by Lombo and a really, really great play by Jordan.”
The Nationals had squandered so many opportunities to that point offensively, loading the bases three times on Roy Halladay, who’s pitching like a shell of himself, and scoring only once in the first six innings. Zimmerman’s 17th home run of the season had tied the game in the top of the seventh, and Zimmermann’s play in the bottom kept it that way.
Halladay and Zimmermann traded laborious innings in the early going, neither getting through a clean frame until the third. Johnson declined to pinch hit for Zimmermann in the top of the sixth with the bases loaded, though, wanting badly to get his right-hander his NL-leading 16th victory of the season.
“Anybody else,” Johnson said. “But the guy leading the club in wins, has been the steady guy all year long, I’ve got to give him every chance to win that ballgame. I looked over before the inning started, I said Oh man, we’re gonna have two outs, bases loaded. Please load em. And then it happened. Sure it happens.”
So when Wilson Ramos walked to open the eighth, Johnson pulled every trick out of his managerial magician’s bag and the manager who preaches about the three-run homer went small.
Scott Hairston pinch hit to move pinch runner Jeff Kobernus to second on a bunt. Johnson gave Kobernus the green light to steal third, if he felt he could. He did. Steve Lombardozzi smacked a chopper to second base and Kobernus sprinted his way home.
“That’s on Kobe,” Lombardozzi said. “That was a great read on his part. He’s got speed so he made it happen right there. It was huge.”
And that was where they stood when Craig Stammen, summoned with Chase Utley on first base, worked to Darin Ruf with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth. And where they stood when Stammen’s 2-2 slider skipped past Solano and Utley broke for home.
Solano popped up and sprinted to his left to retrieve the ball, and then dove, smacking Utley in the ribs a split-second before the Phillies’ second baseman tagged home plate. Stammen ran in to cover but flipped over the whole thing.
“Whenever I throw a pitch I’m so off-balance that it takes me a while to get going and I’m not very fast,” said Stammen, adding that “good running backs always fall forward.”
“But I’m just trying to get to home plate before the runner… I was actually mad for a split-second that he didn’t throw me the ball, because I thought I had a a chance to get him out but looking at the replay, he knew what he was doing.”
“I didn’t see Stammen at all on that play,” said Solano. “When I saw him for the first time, (Utley) started running already. And I said, ‘If I throw the ball to Stammen, I’ve got no chance.’”
Solano beamed with pride as teammates hooted and hollered at him being interviewed after the game. Asked if he could’ve made the same play, Ramos smiled. “That’s routine for me,” he quipped.
“He’s joking,” Solano said with a laugh.
They smiled. They laughed. They packed up and headed to Miami feeling alive again. On Friday they’ll open a three-game set with one of the worst teams in baseball, while the Reds get to face the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It’s big,” Johnson said. “We don’t feel like we’re out of this thing. We’re rooting for St. Louis right now, scoreboard watching. So then we go to Miami, have an off-day and enjoy this pounding victory.”