SAN FRANCISCO - Sammy Solis, standing on the mound, wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Max Scherzer and a few others, watching from the clubhouse, were confused as well. Denard Span obviously had no idea, because he kept running to the plate, unaware he needed to run back to third base. Dusty Baker, in the dugout, was just happy he actually was able to see the entire play develop with his own eyes after missing a similar opportunity 40 years ago.
The only ones who truly needed to be in control of the moment, though, were Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. And because they were just that, the Nationals’ two corner infielders were able to be part of the first triple play in club history, the first triple play of its kind in baseball history and the play that likely saved their team from disaster at AT&T Park.
“Crazy,” said Zimmerman of the 3-3-5 triple play that got the Nationals out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning of what became a 4-1 victory over the Giants. “I guess if you play long enough, things happen. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for us, obviously.”
No, it really couldn’t have. Just when it appeared the Nats much-maligned bullpen was going to be part of another late-inning meltdown, the greatest stroke of fortune possible plucked this team out of the abyss and back into safety.
“Man, we needed that,” Scherzer said. “That was a great turn of events.”
Here’s how it happened...
After getting seven strong innings from Scherzer, Baker entrusted the rest of the game to his bullpen, knowing he was going to have to piece things together again, with Jonathan Papelbon unavailable both because of his recent heavy workload and because of his ineffectiveness.
Oliver Perez started the eighth but departed after allowing back-to-back singles to open the frame. Blake Treinen was inserted to face Buster Posey, but he was pulled after walking the All-Star catcher. That left the bases loaded with nobody out, Brandon Crawford at the plate and now Solis on the mound.
As he signaled for Solis from the bullpen, Baker also summoned two of his best defensive infielders from the bench: Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa. Little did anyone realize how significant that series of moves would be.
“What a triple-double switch by Dusty,” Zimmerman gushed. “Or, however many people he put in.”
The thought of a triple play never entered Solis’ mind as he prepared to face Crawford, but he did have an idea what he was looking for out of the San Francisco cleanup hitter.
“Just something weak,” he said. “Hopefully something back at me, something hard in to a guy, maybe he’ll break his bat and we can go home-to-first, something like that. It’s really just: Come in and get some contact early and hope it goes to someone.”
What he got was even better than that. Crawford sent a line drive toward first base. Zimmerman took a couple steps in and made a shoestring catch. That was Out No. 1.
Zimmerman’s momentum kept him moving toward the bag, and he easily beat Posey there for Out No. 2. That’s when he looked toward the plate and saw Span, his former teammate, having run all the way from third base, thinking the ball had been hit on the ground, not in the air. And that’s when he also looked toward third base and saw Rendon waving frantically to get his attention.
“Once I caught it, I knew I had the double play,” Zimmerman said. “And I looked up and Tony’s jumping up and down with a smile on his face.”
So it was that the veteran first baseman, whose shoulder and throwing troubles have been well-documented for years, lobbed the ball all the way across the diamond to Rendon, who caught it and stepped on third base to complete the first triple play in Nationals history.
“I think (Span) thought it just bounced,” Rendon said. “He just took off toward home, and when Zim touched first, I was like: ‘Give me the ball! Hurry up!’”
There was plenty of confusion from others on the field.
“I didn’t really know what was going on, because I thought the ball might’ve hit the ground,” Solis said. “So I’m looking at Zim like, ‘Why aren’t you throwing it home? What’s going on?’ And obviously it ended up being a triple play, which is pretty cool.”
Baker has been a player, coach or manager in the major leagues for the vast majority of the last five decades. Yet he insists this was the first triple play he had ever seen in person ... though there is a caveat to that claim.
Back when he played for the Dodgers, Baker said his teammates turned a triple play. He just didn’t see it with his own eyes. Why not?
“I went to the bathroom, and then I missed it,” he said. “Everybody’s getting their gloves, and they said: ‘Triple play!’ Tonight, I was happy to see my first real one.”
How remarkable was this one? Well, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, this was the first recorded 3-3-5 triple play in the history of the sport.
“First one ever?” Scherzer said. “Oh, my gosh. Couldn’t happen at a better time.”