The Nationals, believe it or not, actually are capable of hitting with runners in scoring position. And scoring in bunches. Even hitting a grand slam. And, most significantly, coming back from a sizeable deficit to win a ballgame.
Yes, they do have the ability to do all of those things. Perhaps not as frequently as everyone would like, but that skill set is buried away deep inside the 26 men who wear curly W helmets when they step to the plate, ready to come out every once in a while.
And when it happens like it did today during a 12-9 victory over the Orioles, it’s both a sight to behold and reason to at least cling to the notion this team could ultimately be better than it has been to date in 2021.
“What a job by the guys coming back,” Ryan Zimmerman, whose 3-for-5 day and three-run homer were a substantial part of the comeback, said during a Zoom session with reporters afterward. “Getting into an early hole, but knowing we have the whole game to grind it out and chip away. To be able to come back and win that game was huge for us.”
Despite spotting Baltimore a five-run lead in the top of the first after Jon Lester served up a grand slam to Ryan Mountcastle, the Nationals stormed back behind a flurry of long-awaited, high-powered hits. Most remarkably, they retook the lead by the end of the fourth inning before tacking on more runs later just for insurance (which, it turns out, they needed).
An offensive explosion that included 15 hits in total was defined by two big blasts in successive innings: Josh Harrison’s grand slam in the bottom of the third and Zimmerman’s three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth. Each was momentous in its own right.
Harrison’s first career grand slam (on the same day the 33-year-old utility man played center field in the big leagues for the first time) allowed the Nationals to breathe the biggest sigh of relief they’ve exhaled this season. To that point, they were hitting an abysmal .146 (6-for-41) with zero homers and a major league worst .420 OPS with the bases loaded. One four-run blast won’t completely rectify those numbers, but at least Harrison proved it can be done.
“It’s something as a player, you know if you’ve hit one,” said Harrison, who had been 13-for-61 with four doubles and one triple with the bases loaded in his career before today. “It’s taken me a while, but the first one was a good one. The right time.”
Grand slams had been nonexistent for the Nats this season, but three-run homers had been in short supply as well. That made Zimmerman’s 436-foot drive to left a welcome sight of its own, one that gave the home team its first lead of the day.
“Just a hanging slider that he left over the middle,” Zimmerman said of Adam Plutko’s 1-1 pitch. “Honestly, I just didn’t try to do too much with it.”
It was just one of several memorable moments today for the Face of the Franchise, who set yet another franchise record in the sixth. After legging out a grounder to third for an infield single (his third hit of the game), then tagging up and reaching second on Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly to the warning track in right, then racing around to score on Kyle Schwarber’s RBI single to center, Zimmerman crossed the plate for the 948th time in his career.
That number is meaningful because it is one more time than Tim Raines crossed the plate for the Expos, making Zimmerman the new franchise leader in runs (to go along with the records he already owns for hits, doubles, homers and RBIs). This one brought the season-high crowd of 15,440 to its feet to coax the 36-year-old out of the dugout for his first curtain call since 2019, and he didn’t mind soaking up the adulation.
“You get those moments cause you’re old,” the ever-self-deprecating first baseman said. “You’ve got to play for a long time. I’m just lucky enough to be able to do it in one place. Not many guys get the opportunity like I’ve had.”
On the steamiest afternoon of the year so far - 86 degrees at first pitch - the ball figured to fly. And it did, right from the get go.
Lester put himself in a major jam in the top of the first, not via loud contact but two soft hits and two walks. The lefty nearly got himself out of it with back-to-back strikeouts of Pedro Severino and Maikel Franco, but then fell behind Mountcastle 3-1 and grooved a cutter right down the heart of the plate. The ball went soaring off Mountcastle’s bat at 113 mph and landed in the visitors’ bullpen, a grand slam to put the Orioles up 5-0 and leave the home crowd shell-shocked.
Not that anyone should be surprised at this point when something like that happens. Opponents are now batting .381 (16-for-42) with a 1.227 OPS against the Nationals with the bases loaded this season, and the six grand slams this pitching staff has now surrendered in 42 games are only three shy of the single-season mark established by the 2018 club over a full 162-game slate.
It was a grind today for Lester, to say the least. But he did manage to complete four innings, allowing only one more run, and retired the side in both the second and fourth. Still, with a pitch count of 79, that’s as far as the veteran lefty was going to go on a hot day in which his team really needed more than that.
“Obviously, the line isn’t great,” Lester said. “But kept them as close as I could. That’s all I really tried to do: Minimize damage (after the first) and try to pitch as many innings as I could. Unfortunately, it was only four.”
So it was that manager Davey Martinez needed to ask for five innings from five relievers to close this game out. It wasn’t always pretty - Will Harris gave up two runs and needed Daniel Hudson to bail him out in the eighth - but it was enough to ensure the Nationals wouldn’t waste this rare offensive explosion.
For the first time in 13 tries this season, the Nats gave up more than five runs and still won the game. It’s nice to know they actually can do that every once in a while.
“I knew from the beginning, from spring training, I said we’re going to have our moments,” Martinez said. “Every one of these guys can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Today it was Josh. Every day, it’s going to be somebody different. We understand that. But it was a good team win today.”