To this point in the season, Denard Span’s diving grab in deep left-center field at Nationals Park with two on and two out in the ninth on August 14 has been the signature defensive moment of the year. But Wednesday night in Philadelphia, the Nationals made not one, but two game-saving plays, with each coming from unlikely sources.
The Nationals had just scratched out a run in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead, when, in the bottom half of the frame, the Phillies put runners at first and second with two outs. Speedy leadoff man Cesar Hernandez chopped a ball to the right side of the infield, which Adam LaRoche made a play for, but could not reach. Steve Lombardozzi was shifting to his left at a deeper angle and tracked the ball down on the lip of the outfield grass, but with LaRoche moving away from first, the only person left to cover the bag was pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. As the footrace to the base began, it became clear that if Washington couldn’t get the final out of the inning, John Mayberry Jr. was going to score the tying run from second. Zimmermann and Hernandez converged at first, as Lombardozzi’s throw came in low. The pitcher simultaneously found the bag with his right foot and picked the ball on a short-hop out of the dirt, beating the runner by a fraction of a step to end the frame.
“I was just hoping Lombo was going to hit me in the chest,” explained Zimmermann after the game, then took the chance to rib his teammate. “Instead, he threw it at my feet and made it interesting.”
As for the dig out of the dirt, Zimmermann credited the one man on the right side of the infield not in on the play, tongue still in cheek.
“I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to Rochey. He taught me everything I know.”
Even Zimmermann that he wasn’t looking at the ball all the way into his glove on the play, as the replay showed his head was “in the third deck” as he made the play. Craig Stammen, who would play a role in the second defensive gem of the night, wasn’t about to let his teammate off the hook so easily.
“I told him, ‘Nice play, you should have seen it,’” joked the right-hander, who came on to get the final two outs of the eighth.
Those two outs would come on the same play, but in truly unique, bizarre fashion. In fact, with all the baseball he’s seen in his 70 years on the planet, this one was new even to manager Davey Johnson.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a double play that way,” he said.
With one out and runners at the corners, Stammen bounced a two-strike slider to Darin Ruf, who swung and missed for strike three. With a runner at first, Ruf could not attempt to advance, marking the second out of the frame. But the ball skipped away to catcher Jhonatan Solano’s left, with the runner, Chase Utley, breaking for home. Solano raced to corral the ball, in foul territory slightly up the third base line, but when he glanced up to see if Stammen was at the plate in time for the tag, he elected instead to try to make the play himself, diving towards Utley – who was diving toward the plate – and applying the tag to Utley’s midsection just before the runner’s hands crossed the plate.
Together, they formed two tremendous, non-traditional defensive gems, the first saving the go-ahead run from scoring and the second preventing the game-tying run from crossing the plate. They added up to a crucial victory, giving Washington the road series win in Philadelphia as they continue this crucial, three-city September road trip.