Ryan Zimmerman didn’t see the outstretched right palm of Roger Bernadina at home plate, the hitter’s signal that he should hold at third. Zimmerman was focused on the ball skittering away from Reds rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco and knew that it had bounced far enough from home plate to allow him to score the winning run in the Nationals’ 10-inning 3-2 victory in their home opener Thursday afternoon.
Chalk it up to a well-honed baseball impulse, because if Zimmerman had taken to heart the stop sign briefly flashed by Bernadina, the Reds and Nationals might still be immersed in extra innings. Instead, the man who has 14 game-ending hits to his credit scampered 90 feet. Not exactly the dramatic walk-offs with which Zimmerman has become synonymous.
“It’s those things that you’ve done since you were 10 years old,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, the ball has to go away enough where you think you can make it. Bernie hit three balls hard today, so I wasn’t going to take the bat out of his hands. But anytime you get a chance to end the game, you just get a read and trust your instincts.”
Zimmerman led off the home 10th by getting plunked on the left shoulder by the first pitch thrown by Alfredo Simon, the fourth Cincinnati pitcher. After Adam LaRoche fouled out to third, Jayson reached to steer a dribbler past the hole at shortstop, putting runners on first and second. Xavier Nady then moved them up with a slow roller to third. On a 1-1 pitch to Bernadina, Simon bounced a splitter two feet in front of the plate, putting in motion Zimmerman’s decisive dash.
In the home dugout, manager Davey Johnson had just turned to bench coach Randy Knorr, who practically predicted the course of events before they’d begun to unfold.
“Randy said, ‘If they don’t bring in the left-hander (to face Bernadina), this is a good time for a wild pitch.’ And it was,” Johnson recalled. “I thought it was far enough that we had to take the chance. It was great.”
The ball caromed off the heel of Mesoraco’s glove as he flopped to try and block it, then skipped to the catcher’s right. But Bernadina didn’t initially think it had bounded far enough away to allow Zimmerman to make it home. Hence, the stop sign Bernadina first flashed.
“It didn’t look that far, then I looked down and it had gone farther. It was a good read by him,” Bernadina said.
It was a good decision by Zimmerman because he was focused on the ball and not Bernadina, who quickly changed course and started waving him home. Zimmerman, aware of Simon’s propensity to bounce pitches, had gotten a nice secondary lead off third and was off as soon as the splitter kicked up dirt in front of the plate.
“I didn’t see Bernie,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t know if they were trying to pitch around Bernie or walk him or what they were going to do. Obviously, Simon throws a split, so I was kind of heads-up. I had a good read and went for it. Obviously, you’re alert right there and aware that he’s thrown a lot of dirtballs. You just make the read and go.”
The Nationals bench erupted, with starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez leading the charge from the dugout to Zimmerman at home plate, and those left in an announced sellout of 40,907 cheered a most unconventional victory. The Nationals wasted a sterling seven innings of two-hit shutout ball from Gonzalez and two more RBIs from notoriously slow starter Adam LaRoche, who now leads the club with eight. Brad Lidge couldn’t protect a 2-0 lead in the ninth, depriving Gonzalez of a victory in his first home start for the Nats.
“We had to have something go our way. ... We needed a break and we got one there,” Johnson said.