There is plenty still for the Nationals to be concerned about, most notably Stephen Strasburg’s health after a worrisome performance in his return from the disabled list tonight. But remarkably, there are still reasons for this team to have some optimism no matter how hopeless their situation appears, and tonight an old friend provided the moment that helped raise those hopes another notch.
Trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman launched a game-ending, two-run homer just over the right field wall - that survived a replay review - to bring the Nationals back from the dead and emerge with a thrilling 8-7 victory over the Phillies.
Zimmerman’s shot to right-center off Seranthony Domínguez just barely cleared the fence, and initially it was ruled in play, leaving Zimmerman to sprint to second base and hold his arms out in disbelief. But after a brief review, the call was correctly changed to a home run, and the longest tenured player in the clubhouse completed the final 180 feet of his trot around the bases, where his teammates awaited in glee.
It was Zimmerman’s 11th career walk-off homer, the eighth-most in major league history and only two behind all-time leader Jim Thome. It had been more than three years, though, since the first baseman had done it, last getting then-Yankees reliever Andrew Miller on May 19, 2015.
Zimmerman’s homer, which came after Juan Soto kept the game alive with a two-out double, brought the Nationals back on a night when they might have been more concerned about Strasburg’s physical state.
In his first start in a month and only his second start in the last 2 1/2 months after back and neck injuries derailed his summer, Strasburg gave up five runs in four innings on 84 pitches. Of greater concern, his fastball velocity decreased over the course of his outing, raising some red flags about his health.
The Nationals admittedly couldn’t say with 100 percent confidence they knew what they’d get from Strasburg tonight, not after a bit of a rushed process to get the right-hander back on the mound before the season was completely lost. Strasburg threw 70-plus pitches in a simulated game in St. Louis last week, but he didn’t make a customary minor league start before coming off the DL.
The Nats and Strasburg felt like that was worth the risk, given the way his neck and arm felt, and given the stakes at this late stage of the season. But it didn’t take long to realize the pitcher at best was rusty and at worst still injured.
Strasburg’s first fastball of the night registered 95 mph on the stadium radar gun. It would never top that, and actually began dropping a tick or two with each passing inning. By the fourth, he was down to 91-92 mph and shaking his arm after some pitches in a manner seen before when he wasn’t healthy.
The Phillies scored three runs in the top of the first, via three straight extra-base hits, all with two outs, Maikel Franco’s homer down the left field line capping the outburst. Justin Bour, who roped a double into the right field corner to drive home the first run in the first, later drove a fastball onto the center field batter’s eye in the third to give Philadelphia a 4-1 lead.
By the fourth inning, Strasburg appeared to be running on fumes. A walk and two singles led to the fifth run of the evening against him and prompted Davey Martinez to get Wander Suero up in the bullpen. A nifty 4-6-3 double play helped Strasburg get out of the inning, but with his pitch count at 84, Martinez and company decided not to push him any farther.
Concerns about Strasburg’s health will continue, but the Nationals still were in position to win this game, thanks to their own sustained offensive push against Phillies starter Zach Eflin. They scored five runs in 3 1/3 innings against the right-hander, getting clutch hits from Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Soto and Matt Wieters.
Harper continued his dramatic second-half surge with another big night at the plate. By the fourth inning, he already was 3-for-3 with a double, two runs, an RBI and a stolen base. At that moment, his batting average, which sat at .214 at the All-Star break barely a month ago, had skyrocketed to .253. Combine that with 30 homers, 81 RBIs and a .901 OPS, and suddenly this doesn’t feel like such a personally disappointing season for the 25-year-old star after all.
With both starters knocked out early, this game was left in the hands of two bullpens that already were extended during Tuesday night’s rain-delayed affair. The Phillies ‘pen went into lockdown mode; the Nats pen did not.
Suero was the first man up in relief of Strasburg, and after cruising through a 1-2-3 fifth the rookie was allowed to bat for himself and re-take the mound for the sixth. Four batters and a two-out RBI double by Carlos Santana later, Suero had given the lead back to Philadelphia.
Justin Miller entered for the seventh, and the right-hander immediately was greeted by a towering home run into the second deck down the right field by César Hernández. That extended the Phillies’ lead to 7-5 and added pressure on the Nationals to somehow find a way to pull off another inspired rally.
They did get one run back in the eighth when Wilmer Difo (triple) and Andrew Stevenson (sacrifice fly) paired up for the second straight night at the plate. And that set the stage for even more drama in the ninth.