PHILADELPHIA - The Nationals went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base in tonight's 3-2 win over the Phillies.
Their offense didn't win them this game. Their defense did.
The Nats made a couple huge defensive plays in the late innings tonight, keeping the Phillies off the scoreboard and ensuring their three runs put up on Philadelphia pitching would be enough.
The first defensive gem came in the bottom of the seventh after the Nats had just tied the score at 2-2 a half inning prior. With runners at first and second and two outs, Cesar Hernandez grounded a ball into the hole on the right side, past the reach of Adam LaRoche. Steve Lombardozzi ranged to his left, spun and threw a one-hopper to the bag, where Jordan Zimmermann was covering. Zimmermann somehow scooped the ball and tagged the base on the move, ending the inning.
A frame later, Craig Stammen was battling Darin Ruf with runners at the corners and one out. Stammen got Ruf swinging at a slider in the dirt for strike three, but the ball got away from backup catcher Jhonatan Solano. Chase Utley took off from third base and tried to score the game-tying run, but Solano scooped the ball, dove back towards the plate and barely tagged Utley before he got to the plate.
"He's been outstanding," manager Davey Johnson said of Solano. "He was outstanding last year, he's been outstanding this year. He's a good one.
"I thought he was gonna flip it, but he had a good read on it and made a great play. We pounded the heck out of 'em. We should've broken that game wide open in the first couple innings and had one sacrifice fly that (LaRoche) shouldn't have even swung at the pitch. It was neck-high. And we really helped him out. But that's a great win. We needed it."
Zimmermann started out slow tonight, allowing two runs on four hits and a walk in his first two innings of work. He then settled down and ended up picking up his NL-leading 16th win, this after Johnson stuck with him when he could've pinch-hit for his starter with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth.
"That was a good win for Zim," Johnson said. "I was tempted to have a guy throwing early, but I couldn't pinch-hit in that situation with Zim. Had to give him every chance to win this ballgame, and he hung in and pitched a heck of ballgame.
"Normally, anybody else (I pull him). But the guy leading the club in wins, has been the steady guy all year long, I've got to give him every chance to win that ballgame. I looked over before the inning started, I said, 'Oh man, we're gonna have two outs, bases loaded. Please load 'em.' And then it happened. Sure it happens."
The Nats had plenty of chances early against Phillies starter Roy Halladay, who was all over the place in the first couple of innings, surrendering four walks and hitting a batter in the first two frames, before setting down to allow just one run over six.
"I was feeling sorry for him first couple early innings, then I was hating him as he went along because he got better," Johnson said. "He started making better pitches with his fastball and his cutter, and then he had a pretty good split going. But with all the walks he gave up, we should've had him on the ropes.
"You know, I don't think we zone-hit, because LaRoche swung at a ball (with the bases loaded in the first). He could've got him 3-0, then he would've got a real cookie. And (Wilson) Ramos, same way, swings at a ball around his ankles and hits into a double play. We just got to be better. We've got to zone-hit when that guy's in that kind of trouble. Got to make him throw it right down the middle, then swing."
In the end, the Nats were able to manufacture the game-winning run in the top of the eighth on a walk, a sac bunt, a stolen base and a fielder's choice grounder over the mound.
"First of all, I think (Jeff) Kobernus can steal off of (Jake) Diekman," Johnson said. "He's real slow to the plate. If we didn't get him over bunting him over, actually I took the bunt off on two balls and no strikes on (Scott) Hairston, and he bunted anyway. And then we give him the green light to steal third. Figure because Diekman's real slow to the plate. I think we did it one time last time we were here, and that was a big play. And you hit a topper on the infield, with that kind of speed, he's gonna score."
The Nats dropped the first game of this three-game set with the Phillies but bounced back to take the final two and head into their off-day with smiles on their faces. They were carefully monitoring the Reds' extra-inning game with the Cardinals in the clubhouse afterwards, but now take off for a weekend in Miami.
"It's big," Johnson said. "We don't feel like we're out of this thing. We're rooting for St. Louis right now, scoreboard watching. So then we go to Miami, have an off-day and enjoy this pounding victory."