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Inches from ignominy

Sep 25, 2013, 1:06 AM EDT

Associated Press AP

ST. LOUIS — Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate, the throng of 38,940 at Busch Stadium standing, applauding and holding up cell phone cameras in hopes of capturing the moment Michael Wacha threw a no-hitter in the ninth start of his career.

Zimmerman had seen his Nationals teammates flail away all night at the 22-year-old right-hander, managing only three baserunners — two walks and an error — and connecting only a few times on line drives that happened to be hit directly at a Cardinals defender. He himself had yet to even make contact, striking out twice before drawing a walk, baffled by Wacha’s assortment of mid-90s fastballs and high-80s changeups.

Now the last man standing between a rookie pitcher and the record book, Zimmerman decided to take a whack at Wacha’s first-pitch fastball with two outs in the ninth. He didn’t get good wood on it, tapping a chopper right over the mound. He put his head down and took off for first base, never seeing the ball tip off Wacha’s glove, never seeing Pete Kozma field it in his barehand, never seeing the shortstop’s off-balance throw pull Matt Adams off the bag and feeling only a gust of wind as the first baseman’s swipe tag drew nothing but air.

Just like that, with a 75-foot single, Zimmerman denied history.

“Baseball is weird,” the Nationals slugger said. “We hit balls on the screws all night, and that’s the swing. That’s the hit that breaks it up.”

The Nationals still lost Tuesday night, 2-0, capping a gut-wrenching, 24-hour stretch in which they were first eliminated from the playoff race and then 1-hit by a rookie. But they did breathe a collective sigh of relief after avoiding the ignominy of having the first no-hitter pitched against a Washington ballclub in 47 years.

“We’re trying to win that ballgame,” Adam LaRoche said. “And then you get in the ninth inning, and then it’s just: ‘Let’s get a hit and not be on the highlights for the next 10 years.’ So Zim bailed us out.”

Wacha may not have pulled it off, but it’s tough to imagine a pitcher getting any closer to doing it. The 6-foot-6 hurler didn’t really experience any close calls in the 8 2/3 innings before Zimmerman’s squibber. There were a few line drives, but none required extraordinary effort on the part of St. Louis’ defenders.

Wacha retired the first 14 batters he faced, then saw his bid for a perfect game spoiled when second baseman Matt Carpenter let LaRoche’s hard grounder scoot through his legs for an error. The rookie later walked Zimmerman to lead off the seventh and walked LaRoche to lead off the eighth, but never let any National advance beyond first base.

That Wacha did all this 15 months removed from his final college outing at Texas A&M, with the Cardinals trying to move a step closer toward the NL Central title in the season’s final week, only added to the sense of awe everyone in the ballpark experienced.

“Wow,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny gushed. “You can’t … the stuff … the composure … I mean, just watching him there in the ninth. … He was able to tune everything out. For a kid to do that, against a lineup like this, at this time of the season, hard to really get your head around it. Man, that was some kind of fun to watch.”

Fun for the Cardinals and their fans, yes. For the Nationals, not so much.

“You never want to [be no-hit],” said Davey Johnson, who never has been in 2,441 games as a big-league manager. “You’re doing everything you can to wish him back luck, talking about it, what you don’t do on the other side.”

“The whole time, I was just trying to get the guys back inside,” said Gio Gonzalez, highly effective himself in allowing only two runs over seven innings but the hard-luck loser nonetheless. “I didn’t want them to get cold feet sitting out there the whole time. I just wanted them to come back in there and try to swing the bat.”

Gonzalez’s teammates never did get anything going. They came up to bat in the ninth, still hoping to rally and pull off an improbable victory, but first needing a hit. Pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi grounded out to short. Denard Span — who drew some boos three innings earlier when he tried to bunt his way on base — battled to a 3-2 count but then froze on a changeup from Wacha for the second out.

“For whatever reason, it took me until my last at-bat to realize he was working fast and he was rushing some of us,” said Span, who stepped out of the box at one point, drawing more boos. “He’s rushing my timing, rushing my flow. He’s trying to throw my timing off, so let me call timeout and take a breath, take my time. And I wound up drawing it to 3-2. But he pitched good. He made a good pitch 3-2, threw me a nasty changeup, struck me out.”

So it all came down to Zimmerman, who took the exact opposite approach that Span did. After struggling to make contact with Wacha’s changeup in previous at-bats, he went up there hacking at the first fastball he saw.

“The changeup was so good, I didn’t want to get to that,” he explained.

Zimmerman didn’t make solid contact by any means, but his placement was near-perfect. And his hustle down the line ensured the Nationals wouldn’t be no-hit for the first time in their nine seasons of existence and that a Washington ballclub would avoid being no-hit for the first time since the Indians’ Sonny Siebert blanked the Senators on June 10, 1966.

“Just using my blazing speed,” the not-so-blazing Zimmerman said with a smirk. “Trying to get there as fast as I can.”

“I guess it just wasn’t to be,” Wacha said. “But it was still a pretty special night.”

  1. Baseballswami - Sep 25, 2013 at 5:51 AM

    I just think it’s odd that a pitcher gets great accolades for pitching a one hitter when the hit is on the last out. When Gio and JZ did it, and the hit was early, they get much less credit. It ‘s still one hit. Also- I am struggling with the idea that if we lose to the Cardinals, it could take home field advantage from the Barves. Who do I did like more? ATL for sure. At least STL has decent fans.

    • Eric - Sep 25, 2013 at 10:49 AM

      Above all else, I’d like to see JZ get 20 wins. I know W-L isn’t the most meaningful measure of a pitcher’s prowess, but in an otherwise disappointing season, those kinds of achievements are nice to see. And, we’re kinda racking ‘em up:

      Desi becoming only the 7th shortstop to achieve consecutive 20/20 seasons
      Harper becoming the second ever with two 20+ home run seasons before the age of 20
      One of 3 (I think) teams to have 5 players with 20+ home runs this year

      Etc.

      It somewhat confirms, imo, that we really do have what it takes to be a contender.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:10 AM

        Against STL, I find it hard for JZ to get that win.

      • Jw - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:16 AM

        That’s why you play the regulars. Aside from JZ’s 20th, Nats have not beaten Cards since game 4. This is definitely a meaningful game.

      • Eric - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:34 AM

        Agreed JW.

        Faraz, be that as it may, I’m rooting for the Nats to win.

      • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:46 AM

        I am also rooting for them to win but…

        Team stats against JZ by cardinals: .400 /.451 /.613
        lowest avg is .286 by a Cardinals hitter against JZ.

      • Eric - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:48 AM

        Yeah, I know. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy and they’re a contact club.

        I was just saying I’m rooting for the Nats to win regardless of what it means for STL or ATL home field advantage.

      • Candide - Sep 25, 2013 at 12:06 PM

        /nit

        Actually, Harper didn’t get two 20+ home run seasons BEFORE age 20.

        In fact, NOBODY had two 20+ home run seasons before age 20. Harper and Tony Conigliaro are the only ones to have done it by the end of the season in which they turned 20.

        /pick

  2. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 7:00 AM

    oh man, that was close.

  3. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 7:32 AM

    I am really jealous of Cardinals’ pitching prospects. Wacha, Martinez, and Rosenthal. Let’s not forget Miller and Kelly.

  4. natsfan1a - Sep 25, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    Wow. Just looked at the game results email and then the team site. Can’t believe that (almost) happened. Le. Sigh. Anyway, I’m hoping to watch the game in real time today. How’s about you beat the Redbirds today, boys, and then head for AZ? Yeah, that’d be nice.

  5. natsfan1a - Sep 25, 2013 at 8:28 AM

    Don’t mind me, I’m just catching up with some comment reading. No disrespect to Mark, but Kilgore is now officially my he-ro (at least for today). :-)

    (reposting the link, which dropped when I did the cut and paste)

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/nationals-journal/wp/2013/09/24/strasburg-shutdown-to-blame-for-2013-a-few-counterpoints/

    Baseballswami – Sep 24, 2013 at 4:54 PM

    Mark, I love you, but everyone go right now and read Kilgore’s rebuttal to Feinstein’s garbage. It’s a thing of beauty.

    Candide – Sep 24, 2013 at 5:08 PM

    I did read that (it’s here, BTW). If Kilgore is quoting Feinstein accurately, it would appear that, with the exception of Kilgore, the Washington Post’s baseball coverage has gone downhill since the day Chico Harlan happily abandoned his job as the Nats’ beat reporter to move to the foreign desk.

    • Eric - Sep 25, 2013 at 10:54 AM

      “Judging by the comment section, Feinstein’s column seemed to rankle a large segment of Nationals fans. They can take heart in remembering the Nationals didn’t shut down Strasburg this year, and that surely will do wonders for their chemistry, bullpen and playoff chances in 2014. Or is that not how it works?”

      LMAO! Good stuff.

  6. Whynat - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    agree the Feinstein piece makes no sense, although when the the Sports Junkies asked Davey about it this morning, Davey was quoted as saying if Stras wasn’t shut down, they “probably” would have won the World Series last year. They gave him a chance to retract or clarify the quote, and he didn’t. It’s yesterday’s news, but I was surprised Davey said it.

    • Whynat - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:22 AM

      Davey also said shutting him down was the right thing to do.

      • jd - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:44 AM

        When will we stop beating that dead horse?

    • Hiram Hover - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:31 AM

      I am no longer surprised by anything Davey says. I am surprised when anything he says makes sense.

      Which is to say, I’m doubly unsurprised by this.

    • sjberke - Sep 25, 2013 at 12:17 PM

      I am also surprised, not least considering that the guy Stras would have bumped from the rotation was likely Detwiler, who gave the best Nat pitching performance of the series (there’s no Werth walkoff if he doesn’t hold the Cards down for seven innings).

  7. Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    Does anyone read express (WaPo’s publication) on way to work? You should read ‘Nats’ Reality Check’ by Jeffery Tomik. Hilarious! It seems to have been written by one of our neganon.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:23 AM

      it can be read on their website here. Just click on top left box with harper’s photo. Then you can browse today’s paper.

  8. tcostant - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    I’m gonna miss Davey:

    http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2013/09/25/davey-johnson-calles-john-feinstein-an-idiot/

  9. Theophilus T.S. - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    “Zim bailed us out” w/ a 75-foot pinball shot? How pathetic. LaRoche needs to get back to his cattle.

    • Jw - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:46 AM

      Span was the only one who did anything at all to disrupt Wacha’s rhythm. Laid down a bunt, asked for time late, etc. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the only one from last night’s lineup who’s ever been on the bad side of a no-no before.

      • TimDz - Sep 25, 2013 at 12:26 PM

        People are complaining that his bunt attempt in the 6th inning broke an “unwritten baseball rule.”
        What a bunch of BS…It was a 2-0 game and that brought up Zimmerman representing the tying run….

        I’m not sure if Span was still in the game in the ninth, but I would have had no problem with him trying again…same rationale…if successful, you bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Zimmerman, you make Wacha have to pitch from the stretch….who knows what could have happened…

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