Denard Span assessed the situation and decided to roll the dice.
With the Nationals locked in a tie game and doing their best to give away the contest, Span knocked an obvious single into right field and had one thought: get to second base. He did, taking the Chicago Cubs by surprise and — after a replay review to see if Span had really made it past a sweep tag — teammate Ryan Zimmerman eventually drove him in with a sharp base hit to left field in a 2-1 Washington victory.
"I knew it was going to take a perfect throw to throw me out," Span said. "I just trusted my instincts and just went for it. A little risky."
And so on an afternoon when the Nats played anything but crisp baseball — runners left stranded, bunt attempts missed, outs made on the base paths, a rare shaky effort from the bullpen — they found a way to win anyway. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann helped, gritting his way through six innings when he didn't think he'd even make it to the fifth after a rough start. Chicago had at least one single in every inning against Zimmermann, but none went for extra bases and he only walked one batter. And so he left the game with Washington ahead 1-0.
"I think [Zimmermann has] found his slider, and it gives him another weapon," Nats manager Matt Williams said. "He didn't throw it great today. He used fastballs today. But I think since he's found the feel for it, he's been able to locate with it, get down in the zone with it. Certainly get some early outs with it."
The Nats (48-39) are a season-high nine games over .500 now after taking two of three games from the Cubs at Nationals Park this weekend. They also finally gained a game in the standings on the streaking Atlanta Braves (49-39), who remain a half-game ahead in the NL East after a 3-1 loss to Arizona on Sunday afternoon.
"We have to worry about our own games," Williams added. "We can't do anything about what [Atlanta is] doing or how they're playing or any of that. We just need to make sure we play our games until we get a chance to face them. We can't have any impact on what they do. All we can do is try and win ours."
But there's no question Washington wants to win games in a more convincing manner than they did against the Cubs. Zimmermann gave his teammates a chance by working out of trouble.
"Fastball command wasn't there really the whole game," Zimmermann said. "I feel behind hitters early and wasn't able to throw first-pitch strikes. Guys got on base and I had to work out of a few jams. Other than that I threw the ball well. Pitch count got up a little high on me and I had to try to get some quick outs the last couple innings."
But his batters grounded into two double plays and left six other runners stranded on base. Reliever Drew Storen was charged with just his second blown save of the season after allowing a Chicago run in the seventh to tie the game at 1-1.
The Nats had manufactured their lone run in the first inning after Span doubled, went to third on a ground out and scored on another infield grounder by Jayson Werth. That was it for the offense until Zimmerman's go-ahead single in the eighth. Chicago starter Jake Arrieta gave up just four hits in six innings, though he did walk three batters. He's in the midst of a career year at age 28 with a 1.78 ERA.
"[Arrieta is] really tough on right handers. He's right on the third-base side of the rubber. It seems like the ball starts behind you," Zimmerman said. "He's really starting to command that cutter a lot better than he has in the past. He's always had good stuff, but I think being able to throw that cutter the way he throws it for strikes and then you can't really not look for the fastball. He's got a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. If you're not looking for that there's no way you can touch it."
So the offense was shackled for most of the day. But even on Washington's go-ahead run, there was a misplay. Adam LaRoche cost the team an opportunity for an insurance run when he tried to take third base on Zimmerman's hit. Span was headed home easily; there was no need to try to protect him by drawing a throw. Instead, the Cubs conceded the run and took the easy out with LaRoche caught between second and third. Bryce Harper would have batted with runners at first and second.
Even Zimmermann was not immune when he couldn't get runners at first and second over with a bunt attempt in the fifth inning. Worried about Cubs first baseman Antony Rizzo playing so close, Zimmermann was trying too hard to put a perfect bunt down the line at third. Instead, he fouled out. Two batters later Arrieta had escaped the jam and the lead was still just 1-0.
On a day where Washington wanted to feel good about a victory, it was another sign that there is still work left to do to become the team the Nats want. And yet they are 5-1 during this homestand. That's how high expectations are this season.
"Guy's out there crossfiring at 95 miles per hour and you're trying to bunt it to third. It's not easy," Williams said. "But what we can do is control our work and control how we go about it. They bunt every day. But it's important in games like this to be able to do it. So they'll continue to work on it."
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