DENVER — The minute Ian Desmond’s line drive connected with the right side of Juan Nicasio’s head, nothing else mattered. Not the Nationals’ lead, which was two runs at the time, not the hit, which was the first of four on the night for Desmond.
All that mattered was the health of the 24-year-old Colorado Rockies’ pitcher laying face up on the right side of the Coors Field mound, relatively motionless.
Even as the Nationals made their way through a 5-3 victory over the Rockies, the indelible image of the night was the moment Nicasio went down. The rookie, who debuted on May 28, was carried off on a stretcher and taken by golf cart out of the stadium in a harrowing scene.
“It’s hard to see another ballplayer get hurt,” Desmond said, checking with the Nationals’ trainers frequently for an update on the pitcher’s status. “We’re all like brothers out there. It’s just unfortunate. I said my prayer for him as soon as it happened. He’s in God’s hands now. Hopefully he’s OK.”
In the eighth inning, an announcement was made in the press box that Nicasio was at a local hospital resting comfortably and undergoing a battery of tests. That was updated after the game to note that Nicasio had also suffered a neck injury. No other information was provided but the situation remained grave into the night.
Players from both teams stood solemnly on the top steps of their respective dugouts or hung over the railings. Many had their hands clasped over their mouths as the 35,034 in attendance looked on in silence. Edgmer Escalona replaced Nicasio and allowed two earned runs over 4 1/3 innings.
“It’s definitely scary,” said Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann, who had his jaw broken by a line drive in college during batting practice. “It’s tough. It’s the game of baseball and freaky things like that happen, but I hope he’s going to be all right. Just waiting on the news, really.”
Nicasio allowed two earned runs — on a first-inning, two-run triple by Ryan Zimmermann — before departing. Zimmerman’s hit occurred one pitch after the Rockies’ starter appeared to hit him on the left hand with a pitch. Zimmerman didn’t get the call, but the status of his hand was the least of anyone’s concern an inning later.
Were it not for the horrific moment, Friday night would have been all about the dominance of Jordan Zimmermann and the Houdini-like performances of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
In 5 2/3 innings, Zimmermann allowed two earned runs on four hits and two walks, and he struck out eight, He figures to make three or four starts this season — 21 2/3 innings — before reaching the 160 innings the Nationals will limit him to. The Nationals are 11-9 in Zimmermann’s starts this season, but in six of those losses, the right-hander has gone at least six innings and allowed three earned runs or less.
“I’m just going to go out there and keep pitching the way I’ve been pitching until they tell me to stop,” Zimmermann said. “It’s just the process that you have to go through, I guess. I feel strong. I just can’t go from [70 ⅔] innings last year and jumping right up to 200. Next year I’ll be 200-plus, hopefully.”
Zimmermann baffled the Rockies’ hitters for five innings, using his power fastball to his advantage and dropping in an offspeed pitch here and there. He only ran into trouble when he allowed two of the first four hitters he faced in the sixth to get hits off him. He left with runners on at the corners and handed the ball to Henry Rodriguez, who promptly made a mess of Zimmermann’s masterpiece.
Rodriguez faced four batters and retired none. He gave up three straight singles and a walk before Tyler Clippard bailed him out with a bases-loaded strikeout — after falling behind 3-0 to Eric Young. Clippard and Drew Storen then stretched to combine for 3 1/3 scoreless innings, with Storen coming on for the four-out save, in order to preserve Zimmermann’s victory.
“I’ve said all year, he’s a tough act to follow,” Storen said of Clippard. “Quality pitch, 3-2 changeup with the bases loaded and that’s pretty good stuff, tough to follow up. When he goes in the game, I’m already ready to go. I’m already in the game once he comes in the game.”
The Nationals left Coors Field on an upbeat note, their 54th victory in the books on the heels of strong pitching and timely hitting — including Michael Morse’s team-leading 19th home run of the season. Still, the events that preceded their victory loomed large and Nicasio was on a lot of the Nationals’ minds.
“It’s just an unfortunate thing,” Storen said. “It’s part of the game. There’s not really anything you can do about that. … It’s really sad to see that and I really hope he recovers. It might not necessarily scare us as much as it scares our families. A lot of times it’s not us that’s out there worrying, it’s our families.”