The day after Ryan Zimmerman injured himself in New York, sliding into second on what would turn out to be the play that caused him to need abdominal surgery, the Nationals won a game where they had to use 18 of their 25 players, scoring four runs in the 11th to beat the Mets in 11 innings.
I wrote at the time that the win was a credit to the team's depth. But what the Nationals did in Atlanta on Wednesday night, again scoring four runs in the 11th to win 7-3, was even more difficult.
They'd had just six hits heading into the ninth inning. They were trailing 3-1 and about to face Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, whose fastball touches 99 mph. They were in the eighth game of a three-city road trip, and three of the eight position players in their opening day lineup were either on the disabled list (Zimmerman, Rick Ankiel) or dealing with an injury that manager Jim Riggleman felt was bad enough to keep them out of the lineup (Michael Morse).
The Nationals needed 20 players to get through 11 innings Wednesday, using their entire bench, all but two relievers in their bullpen and starting pitcher Jason Marquis as a pinch runner. The last two plate appearances that set up the ninth-inning rally - Matt Stairs' walk and Alex Cora's two-run single - came from pinch hitters as Riggleman tried to load up on left-handers to face Kimbrel. The Nationals have won four of five, and in 29 games without Zimmerman, they're 15-13.
"Not to be cliche and all that, but that was a total team victory," Riggleman said. "We got contributions from everybody. Anybody who didn't get a hit was doing something defensively, running the bases. We got contributions from the bench, great pitching. It was really just an outstanding win."
Now, there's an argument to be made that except for Zimmerman, the Nationals don't experience much of a drop-off from their starters to their bench in the spots where they're playing reserves. Ankiel had a .590 OPS when he went on the disabled list, and his only solid full season as a major league outfielder was 2008. And Morse, for all his upside, has a .593 OPS and two homers in 92 plate appearances.
But the Nationals have at least found competent replacements; Nix could wedge his way into a platoon in left field after hitting .286 with a pair of homers in his last 10 games. Cora is hitting .450 in May, and he and Jerry Hairston Jr. have given the Nationals reliable defense in Zimmerman's absence. And the Nationals set up the go-ahead play by calling a hit-and-run with Ivan Rodriguez, their 39-year-old catcher, on first base. Few catchers, especially those at Rodriguez's age, could go from first to third on a single like he did.
The Nationals have fought their way back to 18-18, and have a chance to sweep last year's Wild Card winners tonight. They're still trying to stay afloat without Zimmerman, but after this road trip started with a sweep in Philadelphia and appeared headed for disaster, the Nationals have used their depth to turn it into a success.
"Where we started this road trip to where we are right now, with a chance to sweep these guys, is big for the team," Cora said.
(Thanks again to Kristen Hudak, who is down in Atlanta for a couple days and sent back the quotes.)