It was all working out so easily for the Washington Nationals. The balloons marking the opening of Nationals Park for 2012 hung from the center-field gate. The stands were packed Thursday afternoon with fans clad in curly 'W' apparel and the Nationals' blockbuster offseason trade acquisition was dominant on the mound. The best start in team history was in sight.
But then a hard, bouncing ground ball skipped past their normally surehanded third baseman. A one-out, ninth-inning walk came back to bite them. And suddenly a two-run lead was no more.
So instead of finishing the script Gio Gonzalez penned to perfection for seven innings in what eventually ended as a 3-2 victory, the Nationals left their fate up to a pitcher they knew had a penchant for wildness. The scouting report on Cincinnati Reds reliever Alfredo Simon was that he had a tendency to throw balls in the dirt. Look for it, Nationals coaches told their players. Watch for it.
With Roger Bernadina batting in the bottom of the 10th inning and Ryan Zimmerman on third base, bench coach Randy Knorr issued a premonition to manager Davey Johnson. "This," Knorr said, "would be a good time for a wild pitch."
The pitch was a 79-mph splitter. It swooped in near Bernadina's back foot. It bounced up and clanked off catcher Devin Mesoraco's chest. It bounded away. Zimmerman slid home and popped up with an emphatic fist pump. Nationals win.
"That was a great read," said Bernadina, who was holding up a stop sign for Zimmerman, not knowing how far the ball had bounced behind him.
After the game, sitting at his locker, Zimmerman lambasted his performance. It was his inability to get to Ryan Ludwick's two-run single down the line in the ninth that allowed the Reds to tie the game and steal Gonzalez's win. It was him who bobbled, and then wildly threw to first, Drew Stubbs' grounder in the third inning. It was his glove that Wilson Valdez's eighth-inning double lipped off.
"One of my worst games," he called it. But it was a pitch that hit him in the left arm to lead off the 10th that allowed the Nationals to win, and they're 5-2 for the first time in their history.
"Thank God we won that game," Zimmerman said. "Because if we lost that game, it would have been hard for me to sleep tonight."
"Those are plays that I expect myself to make," he added. "They're not routine plays ... but I expect myself to make them."
From the mound, where the absence of closer Drew Storen continued to glare, it looked different.
"That's not his fault," Brad Lidge said of Ludwick's single. "Nine out of 10 times, he probably does make that play. ... But it comes back to me executing the pitch better. That's not his fault. The base runners were my fault."
An inning and a half later, though, both could smile and laugh about it.
"We won," Zimmerman said. "I don't even remember it."
The only lament in a joyous home clubhouse after nearly two full months on the road was that Gonzalez wasn't going home with the 'W' next to his name. After a Nationals debut that didn't go as planned in Chicago, Gonzalez got a do-over in Washington. And he was magnificent.
In seven innings, the left-hander surrendered two hits, second- and fifth-inning doubles. Both times, he could have allowed the hit to ruin him. Both times, Gonzalez was dominant in leaving them there. "Filthy," Bernadina said, amazed even from center field.
Even better: He didn't allow a walk. Gonzalez, who led the American League in walks in 2011, hadn't gone a full start without issuing a walk since Aug. 1, 2010. He shook off catcher Wilson Ramos just once, and his command was impeccable. For good measure, he ripped his first major league hit.
"It was just a dominating, dominating outing," Johnson said.
As Nationals players poured out of the dugout to mob Zimmerman near home plate, three innings after he'd thrown his final pitch, Gonzalez was first in line.
"Big smile," he said later. "Big smile."
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