- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ball met bat Sunday afternoon and Jordan Zimmermann threw his head back in disgust. He put his hands on his hips and slouched off the mound. “Double,” he thought. “No-doubt double.”

The ball was tailing to the gap in left-center field, sailing toward no-man’s land between two reserve outfielders. The left fielder, rookie Steven Souza Jr., tracked it toward the warning track. The ball dipped toward the ground. Souza dove. The ball dove. Souza won. And in the middle of the infield, Zimmermann stopped in his tracks and threw his hands up in the air.

“Whatever [Souza] wants, he can have,” Zimmermann said. “I’ll buy him anything.”

After throwing the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals history in a 1-0 victory over the Miami Marlins, Zimmermann didn’t know how to act, or what to do. His teammates sprinted from the dugout, from the bullpen, from the outfield, mobbing him at the pitcher’s mound. He later took a shaving cream pie to the face. When Doug Fister and Tyler Moore came with the Gatorade bath, Zimmermann turned and faced the celebration head on.

“When I first got called up [to the majors], I thought there was no way this would ever happen,” Zimmermann said. “My career numbers are something like one hit per inning, so I figure if I can make it out of the first, the hit’s coming in the second. But today was one of those special days.”

Zimmermann struck out 10 batters, walked one and threw 104 pitches. Only two batters reached base against him: Justin Bour on a fifth-inning walk and Garrett Jones, who struck out on a wild pitch in the seventh but beat the throw to first base.

It was the first no-hitter for the franchise since Montreal Expos right-hander Dennis Martinez threw a perfect game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 28, 1991. And it was the first no-hitter in Washington, D.C., since Aug. 8, 1931, when Senators left-hander Bobby Burke blanked the Red Sox, 5-0, at Griffith Stadium.

“It doesn’t happen very often,” manager Matt Williams said. “He was in command from the beginning. His pitch count was low, which helps. There was never a thought of taking him out until he gave up a hit.”

Zimmermann exuded calm from the moment he arrived at Nationals Park on Sunday morning. He walked into the clubhouse with a smile. He changed into a pair of Zubaz pants. He joked with Moore about remembering to set his fantasy football lineup.

That demeanor stayed with Zimmermann when he walked to the mound in the first inning. He battled through a 10-pitch at-bat against Marlins leadoff hitter Christian Yelich. Then he went to work.

Zimmermann retired the next two hitters in seven pitches. He got through the second inning in 10. The third and fourth innings were clinical: an 11-pitch third, featuring two strikeouts, and a six-pitch fourth.

It was around that time when pitching coach Steve McCatty leaned over to Williams in the dugout. Zimmermann had been hit by a line drive in his previous start, leaving a mess of black and blue bruises on his right shoulder. With the playoffs approaching, the coaching staff had planned to only let him pitch six innings Sunday.

“What do we do if we’re going to give him six and he doesn’t have a hit?’ McCatty asked.

Williams glared back. “That’s not funny,” he said.

But as the hitless innings passed by, the reality of the situation became more and more clear. Zimmermann walked Bour with two outs in the fifth — “Still burns me a little bit,” he said afterwards — but was otherwise dialed in. In the final regular-season game for both teams, the Marlins were swinging freely, playing to Zimmermann’s strength as a pitch-to-contact starter.

“Since the beginning of the game to the end of the game, he was aggressive,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “He was aggressive all game long. That’s a guy like that we need in the playoffs.”

Ramos didn’t start thinking about the possibility of a no-hitter until the eighth inning. The thought first passed through Zimmermann’s head in the fifth. He hit a one-out single in that frame, then added another base hit in the seventh.

The feeling on the field was otherwise normal. Zimmermann comfortable and confident. He was “talking trash, especially about the two hits that he had,” Kevin Frandsen said. “That’s Jordan.”

In the dugout, however, the tension was there. The bench was silent. Williams, McCatty and bench coach Randy Knorr walked down the tunnel to the clubhouse when they had to talk. In the bullpen, the situation was acknowledged but never spoken out loud.

“It’s just the biggest elephant in the world in the room,” closer Drew Storen said.

By the time Souza entered the game in the ninth, Zimmermann was pumping fastballs down the middle of the plate. His last, a 2-1 four-seamer to Yelich, found Souza, the organization’s minor league player of the year and the MVP of the International League with Triple-A Syracuse.

Fifteen players took the field behind Zimmermann as Williams cycled his regular position players out of the game. The last to come on, Souza, made the most important play.

“Just an epic day for an epic season,” Denard Span said. “There’s just no other fitting way to end a storybook regular season than to end it with a no-hitter.”

The Nationals will take Monday off then return to the park on Tuesday for the first of three days of workouts. The postseason, and a first-round meeting with either the San Francisco Giants or the Pittsburgh PIrates, awaits.

But on Sunday, it was all about the now. It was about basking in the glow of history, if only for a day. It was about Zimmermann walking through the clubhouse, his arm wrapped in ice to the shoulder, and finding Souza to share a hug. “Love you bro,” Souza said.

For one day, the playoffs could wait.

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