CHICAGO - There are few hitters havens in baseball like Wrigley Field, provided the wind isn’t blowing in and the temperature isn’t 43 degrees. But there’s no park in the majors that has haunted Ryan Zimmerman like the Friendly Confines on the corner of Clark and Addison, at least in recent years.
Ever since he became manager of the Cubs in 2015, there is no member of the Nationals lineup Joe Maddon has been more willing to pitch to than Zimmerman. So much so that he once walked Bryce Harper 13 times in a four-game series, just to bring Zimmerman to the plate instead.
And the results were staggering. From 2015 through Friday, Zimmerman was 5-for-49 with four RBIs when playing at Wrigley Field, including the 2017 National League Division Series. He hadn’t homered here since August 22, 2013.
And then came this afternoon’s contest on a postcard-perfect Saturday on the North Side, in which Zimmerman stared his Wrigley demons squarely in the eye and tried to wipe them all out with three big swings in the first four innings of the Nationals’ 9-4 victory.
With a two-run homer in the first, a sacrifice fly to the warning track in the third and a three-run homer in the fourth, Zimmerman was a one-man wrecking crew in taking down Cubs ace Jon Lester. The Nats got contributions from several others, but the man in the cleanup spot was the star of the show.
“I think it was big for him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I know it was big for us, too.”
Zimmerman wasn’t even supposed to bat cleanup when the day began. Anthony Rendon was in the original lineup, but when the third baseman was scratched with a bruised left wrist - he was hit by a pitch during Friday’s game - Martinez needed to shuffle things around.
Harper moved up from fourth to third. But instead of moving rookie sensation Juan Soto up a slot to the cleanup position, Martinez decided to leapfrog Zimmerman over Soto, from sixth to fourth. It meant Zimmerman would be charged with protecting Harper. Against the Cubs. At Wrigley Field. But it made sense to bring lefty-righty balance to the Nats lineup on a day the opposition was sending a left-hander to the mound.
“When he’s good, he’s a cleanup hitter,” Martinez said. “He’s been that guy. It was nice to be able to slot him in there against the lefty and split Harper and Soto up. It gives the opposing manager something to think about if he has to make a pitching change.”
The move immediately paid off. After Harper sent a two-out single to right in the top of the first, Zimmerman stepped up and battled through an eight-pitch at-bat. He waited for his pitch, and he finally got it, lashing a 3-2 fastball from Lester into the bleachers in left-center for his eighth homer of the season.
“I thought we did a good job waiting him out,” Zimmerman said of Lester. “And when he did make those mistakes, we took advantage of them.”
Zimmerman came up to bat in the third with another chance to cause damage, with Trea Turner standing on third with one out after stealing second and advancing another 90 feet on Willson Contreras’ throwing error. And the veteran slugger once again smoked a pitch from Lester, though this time not quite enough to clear the warning track in center. Albert Almora Jr. caught it, Turner scampered home, and the Nationals had a 3-0 lead, with all three RBIs coming off Zimmerman’s bat.
Then came the top of the fourth, at which point the Nats delivered the final blow to Lester. Daniel Murphy sent his own line drive flying into the left field bleachers, raising his batting average to .306 and his OPS to .814. Turner (moments after mistakenly trotting towards first base on ball three) singled up the middle to drive in another run.
And then two batters later, Zimmerman did it once again. His three-run homer to left-center made him 2-for-2 with six RBIs (tying a career-high), gave the Nationals a 9-1 lead and knocked Lester from the game.
“To be able to come back and put a six-spot on them, that brought the momentum right back,” Zimmerman said. “It’s also something we really haven’t been doing that much. But since the All-Star break, we’ve been a lot better at that. Obviously a huge inning.”
Everything after that was elementary. Pitching with a hefty lead, Tanner Roark cruised to his fourth consecutive victory. The right-hander allowed one run in the top of the third via two singles and a sacrifice fly, but that’s nearly all he surrendered to a Chicago lineup that leads the National League in most offensive categories.
Martinez even let Roark return to the mound for the eighth inning with his pitch count having already reached triple digits. The right-hander couldn’t quite complete the inning, getting pulled after allowing three singles, but he nonetheless excelled again while throwing 117 pitches.
Over his last four starts, Roark has gone 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA, 27 strikeouts and two walks.
“Just being able to drive more toward the plate and be more deceptive,” the right-hander said in describing the key to his turnaround. “Getting on top of the ball with my sinker was a huge part of it. Using it to both sides of the plate, and also mixing my four-seamer to keep the hitters honest.”