When Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate shortly after midnight on Saturday morning, facing a pitcher against whom he was 1-for-7 in the last two years, he went to the thought that always runs through his mind in those situations.
The bases were loaded and the Nationals and Phillies were tied after a furious Washington rally in the ninth, but Zimmerman deflected the pressure the same way he has his whole career: by telling himself the pitcher, not him, was the one in the bind.
“The pressure’s on him, man. It’s not on me,” Zimmerman said of Phillies closer Ryan Madson. “I’m like 0-for-whatever against him. I’m supposed to get out. The way I’ve always been taught is, the pressure’s on the pitcher. Obviously, I want to get a hit as much as anyone else, but if you kind of put it into that mindset, it puts the pressure on him, keeps you calm, and the key thing is to try and not do too much.”
In those situations, Zimmerman has done plenty. He now has eight game-ending home runs in his career, the most in baseball since he came to the majors in 2005. Only the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier and the Red Sox’s David Ortiz, with six each, come close. And his latest walk-off might have been one of his most memorable.
Madson threw him a changeup in the dirt on a 2-2 count, and when Zimmerman dug in with the count full, he knew Madson couldn’t do much other than throw him a fastball. He sat on it, put it in the left field seats, rounded third base and got mobbed by his teammates, his walk-off grand slam capping a six-run ninth inning and giving the Nationals an 8-4 win over the Phillies.
“He’s a great player,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “Great players do great things. Ryan’s been doing it for a while.”
The homer, Zimmerman’s second walk-off grand slam, even struck a similar tone to his first one. That came at 1:42 a.m. on May 13, 2007, after another long rain delay pushed the Nationals’ game with the Marlins into the early morning. This time, Zimmerman sent the Nationals home without extra innings on a bizarre night.
There was lightning in the skies when the game started, and it was only nine minutes old when the skies opened up. Livan Hernandez, who’d thrown nine pitches, came off the mound knowing that if he wanted to stay in the game, he’d have to stay loose.
He went to manager Davey Johnson immediately and said he’d stay in the game. Four times during a two-hour, 22-minute delay, Hernandez went to the batting cages and threw between 30 and 40 pitches. He came back into the game and finished four innings, and though he allowed four runs, he also helped save the Nationals’ bullpen.
“I don’t want to be a hero, but I feel proud, too,” Hernandez said. “You find somebody that stops for two and a half, you call me.”
The biggest hero early Saturday morning, as it’s been many times before, was Zimmerman. Given a big stage in the ninth inning against the Phillies, he did what he does so well:
He stole it.
“He’s just totally in control in tough situations,” Johnson said. “He’s very calm. The rest of us get a little excited.”