It was a glorious day to celebrate Ryan Zimmerman on South Capitol Street. It was unseasonably warm for mid-June at 76 degrees with low humidity, albeit 17 mph winds moving from left field to right.
Not a cloud in the sky as 42,730 fans packed Nationals Park to watch Zimmerman’s No. 11 become the first number ever retired by the club. But after all of the celebrations, tribute videos, speeches and the actual ceremony to honor the franchise’s past, the current Nationals team took the field in an attempt to give Zimmerman a victory on his special day.
“Today was good. The ceremony was unbelievable," said Davey Martinez, who was involved during the pregame ceremony himself. "I mean, it's amazing."
Unfortunately, the 2022 Nationals look more like the teams from Zimmerman’s early years, not like the winning teams he led for most of the past decade. This team was also trying to snap multiple losing streaks: They have lost seven straight games since Sunday. They have lost 12 straight to National League East rivals. And they have lost 11 in a row to these Phillies.
All of those streaks continued with today’s 2-1 extra-inning loss on Ryan Zimmerman Day in front of a sellout crowd, the largest attendance of the season. The deciding run came on Rhys Hoskins’ pinch-hit RBI single to score the automatic runner in the 10th off Reed Garrett.
Miraculously, Andres Machado inherited a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the 10th and didn’t let a runner cross home plate, leaving it a one-run game going to the bottom of the frame.
“I thought Machado came in and was nails. And I thought Garrett threw the ball really well, so that's good to see," Martinez said.
As the Nationals celebrated the most clutch player in club history, their current players couldn’t come up with enough clutch hits to deliver a win. In order to have a chance, they needed to see someone other than starter Aaron Nola, who held them scoreless on four hits with eight strikeouts over the first eight innings. Former teammate Brad Hand was a welcomed sight in the ninth.
Juan Soto drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on Nelson Cruz's groundout. Josh Bell then tagged a ball to center that brought the crowd to its feet, but got caught in the wind and died at the warning track. So it would be up to pinch-hitter Lane Thomas to deliver the clutch hit, which he did with an RBI single to right to tie the game at 1-1.
“I really felt when Josh Bell hit that ball, it was a home run," Martinez said. "(Catching coach Henry Blanco) grabbed me super hard because he thought it was out, too. But the way that wind was blowing crazy today. But he hit the ball well, so we thought it was a home run and we got excited. And ball just died.”
“I was definitely thinking about him going to the plate," Thomas said of Zimmerman. "I think he would have tried to hit a homer, but he's a little stronger and bigger than me. So I thought I'd just try to shoot one through the hole there.”
But all it did was delay the inevitable as no such clutch hits came in the bottom of the inning. Maikel Franco, Luis García and pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza were retired in order by Seranthony Domínguez.
With the chapter closed on Zimmerman’s playing career and his No. 11, the Nationals watched as Josiah Gray continued to write his young story into the franchise’s lore.
Of course forever linked with catcher Keibert Ruiz as the two players received for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, it can’t go unnoticed that Gray took the mound on Mr. National’s day, representing the team’s future as Zimmerman now represents its past.
“It was awesome," Gray said. "Obviously, I wanted to go out there and do well for Zim and the people in attendance. But it was awesome to see 40,000-plus people there cheering for the Nats, rooting for the Nats. So I'm glad I got the ball that game and it was a lot of fun.”
Gray was able to provide even more length that the Nationals’ pitching staff still so desperately needs, pitching the team’s first quality start since Patrick Corbin in Cincinnati on June 5. But it could've been an even better outing had the young right-hander had more command of his pitches.
He threw a career-high 117 pitches, but only 66 for strikes (56.4 percent). Gray labored from the beginning, needing 24 pitches to get out of the first inning thanks to a two-out walk and hit-batter. He then had back-to-back 1-2-3 innings, but needed 19 pitches to retire the top of the Phillies lineup in the third.
"Josiah, once again his pitch count got way up there," Martinez said. "But knowing that he had a week off, he's got another week off, we let him go a little bit. But he battled, did well. So we really got to talk to him about trying to get so many swings and misses, trying to get some early contact. But he's got good stuff. And if we can get him to start getting quick innings, you'll see him start going into the seventh inning. His stuff is good, his stuff is really good and he's really learning."
The fielding wasn't always perfect behind Gray, either. García’s two-out error (his second straight game with an error) in the fourth put Alec Bohm on second base during a scoreless game. But Gray was able to retire Bryson Stott to erase the error.
Gray got in his own way, too, at times. With two outs in the sixth, a wild pitch on a strikeout of Odúbel Herrera allowed the batter to reach. Then after a stolen base and a walk, two runners were on for Stott again, with Gray’s pitch count well over his previous career high of 101. But once again, he got Stott out, this time with a comebacker to the mound.
"Obviously, really excited to get that ball and be able to go out there for the sixth, knowing my pitch count was pretty high," Gray said. "But after that walk to Bohm, I was kind of peeking in the dugout. I didn't know what Davey was thinking. But once I didn't see him move, I knew he had the confidence in me to go out there and get that last out. And I knew I had the confidence in myself to go get that last out. So that obviously meant a lot. So had to bear down for a few more pitches and got Stott out there. So it's awesome. And for him to have that confidence in me and in a 0-0 ballgame as well, it definitely means a lot.”
Phillies batters kept battling against Gray to drive his pitch count up. They fouled off 21 pitches while putting only 17 in play. Whenever the starter was able to get ahead, they seemed to be able to bring it to a full count thanks to Gray’s erratic command.
Gray finished six scoreless innings of one-hit ball with three walks and four strikeouts, an outing that showed his stuff, tested his limits and concluded a weird week for him. He was scratched from his start on Monday against the Braves after throwing 37 warmup pitches and then sitting through a long rain delay before the game even started. But that essentially meant he started today on 10 days' rest, with more rest coming next week thanks to two off-days.
“I feel good. I feel like tomorrow is gonna be a normal Day 1 bounce back," Gray said when asked how he felt physically. "But yeah, obviously, a week ago with that delay before the Braves start and everything like that, it was obviously a little different the first time having to deal with that. But it was all right. A little different and I'm glad I got the extra rest and got to go out there today against a good lineup for the Phillies.”
The Phillies’ first run today came on No. 9 hitter Yairo Muñoz’s home run off Erasmo Ramírez in the seventh inning.
On the other hand, Nola had a lot more command and was able to be efficient with his pitches. And the Nationals couldn’t do anything with them.
Through seven innings, the only baserunners off Nola were singles by Soto, Ruiz, García and Bell, and an intentional walk to Soto in the sixth.
The intentional walk set up the Nats’ only real chance to score off the veteran right-hander. García led off the frame with a single into the shift. A sacrifice bunt and groundout moved him to third base, and after one pitch, the Phillies decided to put Soto on first base to bring up Cruz.
The veteran designated hitter was already 0-for-2 on the day with a strikeout, and struck out on four pitches, the last three fastballs, to end the threat. The Nats’ only runner against Nola from that point on was Bell’s leadoff single in the seventh.
“We ran into a buzzsaw today. Nola was really good," Martinez said. "We've seen him before when he can be that way. And we've seen before we can get some hits, some runs early on him. But today he mixed all his pitches in really well. Our offense couldn't really get nothing going. We battled. We didn't chase a whole lot. But he had good stuff today. So today Nola was on.”
This one loss does not define this day in Nationals history. All everyone will remember is Zimmerman’s name and number on the façade of the third deck along the first-base line.
It was a happy day for the franchise. But although it was a reminder of how far this franchise has come in 17 years, it’s also a painful reminder of where it stands today: 23 games under .500.
"I think it's a matter of continuing playing good baseball," Gray said of bringing back today's excitement to future games at Nationals Park. "We're in a little rut right now, but about a week before we were playing pretty good baseball. So continue to get back to those winning ways. And we're gonna get there soon. We're all putting the work in. And I'm sure the fans are gonna start coming more and more as the weather starts heating up and we get back to our winning way. So I'm looking forward to bigger crowds like that this year and years to come.”