Tom Milone began his major league career at 7:07 p.m. with an 88 mph fastball for a strike low and outside to Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. And for the first three innings, Milone would spin a fairy tale out of an ordinary Saturday night at Nationals Park.
Milone, the Nationals’ 2008 10th-round draft pick, would set down the first six batters he faced. Then he’d see precisely one major league pitch as a batter before driving it into the Nationals’ bullpen in right field for a three-run homer, forever etching his name in Nationals lore. It was, quite frankly, almost too good to be true.
“When I was running down the first-base line, it was almost like I was dreaming,” Milone said.
The robust crowd of 34,821 went wild, showering cheers upon the Nationals newest home-grown product to debut and remind everyone just how bright the future could be for an organization mired in a history of losing. The cheers didn’t die until the Nationals veterans grabbed the rookie and ushered him to the dugout’s top step for a curtain call.
Yet three hours and 19 minutes later, it was the Nationals king of fairy-tale endings who delivered the win, their 11th walk-off of the season. As the Nationals beat the Mets 8-7, Milone’s script was good, but Ryan Zimmerman’s was better.
Better — and familiar. Zimmerman has now collected 14 game-ending hits in his career, and while this one didn’t come with the same pizazz as the walk-off grand slam he stroked two weeks, it was just as fulfilling. Zimmerman watched from the dugout as the Nationals, their one-time 5-0 lead whittled down and ultimately transforming into a one-run deficit, opened the bottom of the ninth with a single and a walk by Jesus Flores and Jonny Gomes.
He watched as Ian Desmond dropped down a well-placed sacrifice bunt and, impossible as it may have seemed, as the Mets intentionally walked Roger Bernadina to load the bases and bring him to the plate.
“That’s the strategic play,” Zimmerman said with a shoulder shrug, despite the fact that Bernadina — who had homered four innings earlier — was just called back up to the big leagues on Friday and been intentionally walked one other time in his major league career.
“But that’s the unbelievable part about all this stuff,” he said. “How many chances I actually get to have a walk-off hit. It’s just amazing. It seems like I always find myself in that position.”
“Unbelievable,” Desmond said. “He’s unbelievable.”
And on any other night it would have been the most talked-about swing of the game, the broken-bat blooper into right field that scored pinch runner Brian Bixler and Gomes. But Milone at least held the trump card in that department.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson pulled Milone after just 4 1/3 innings, and while a four-run fourth didn’t look great, Milone was impressive overall. He wasn’t afraid to come inside on hitters, he hit seemingly every spot catcher Jesus Flores asked him to, and he struck out both Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan. And there was the homer.
“All the guys from Triple-A said he can hit,” Zimmerman said.
So he did.
Standing on the on-deck circle, Milone readied himself for Mets starter Dillon Gee. A .346 hitter this season for Triple-A Syracuse, Milone told himself that if he saw a first-pitch fastball, he was going after it. Gee obliged. As the ball sailed over their heads, the Nationals relievers lost all semblance of control.
“It felt almost like I didn’t feel it come off the bat,” Milone said. “It felt that good.”
Milone became the first pitcher in Nationals history to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and just the eighth pitcher in major league history to do it on the first pitch of his first at-bat. The last to do it was Adam Wainwright, five years ago, but he was a reliever. The only other pitchers to homer in their first at-bats in franchise history are Guillermo Mota in 1999 and Dustin Hermanson in 1997.
“It was a no-doubter,” Desmond said. “Right off the bat, I put my hands up like he was my brother or something. It was awesome. It was fun.”
For one night, so, too, was the end of the game for the Nationals.