The outcome of the game was important - to the Red Sox. The Nationals wanted to respect that. And yet there were things the Nats felt they needed to do in this Game 162, whether putting a 23-year-old rookie on the mound for his major league debut, giving a retiring catcher a chance to take the field one last time or giving a potentially retiring franchise icon a chance to depart the field to the celebration he deserves.
So it was that today’s season finale played out on South Capitol Street in a manner that attempted to satisfy everyone, if such a thing was possible.
What that looked like: The Red Sox scored five runs off the Nationals bullpen en route to a 7-5, wild card-clinching victory, capping off a late Sunday afternoon that saw Joan Adon strike out nine in his big league debut, Alex Avila drive in two runs with a double in the final game of his career and Ryan Zimmerman walk off the field in tears before the top of the eighth inning, removed by manager Davey Martinez so he could be saluted by a crowd of 33,986, his teammates, the Red Sox and anyone else inside the park who couldn’t help but wonder if that spelled the end of his franchise-altering career.
“I’m pretty lucky to have been able to do it for as long as I have, so it’s hard to feel sorry or anything like that,” said Zimmerman, who continued to insist he has not made up his mind yet about retirement. “I think it’s an exciting day. My family was here. If this is the last day, it was a hell of a day.”
It was an emotional final day of the season, to be sure, for a variety of reasons. For Boston, this locked up a Tuesday night date with the Yankees in the American League wild card game. For Washington, this was about far more than the last of 97 painful losses during a 2021 campaign that started out with promise but ended in a full-scale rebuild.
It’s with that in mind that Zimmerman will now decide whether to come back in 2022. He has consistently said for weeks that he doesn’t know what he’ll do yet, that he probably won’t until sometime this winter when it’s time to start getting his 37-year-old body in shape for spring training.
“Do I want to keep playing? I think I can keep playing,” he said. “I think I had a really good year with the role that I was supposed to do. Now it’s a decision of: Do I want to keep doing that or do I want to be around my family a little bit more?”
Shortly before first pitch today, general manager Mike Rizzo made it clear he would welcome the franchise’s record holder in almost every offensive category back for another season if he wants to join them.
“Ryan Zimmerman has a place on this roster as a player as long as Mike Rizzo is the GM,” he said. “So whenever he wants to take a major league contract, just call me up and we’ll give him one.”
The scenes that played out today, though, sure offered everyone closure if Zimmerman opts to retire, and it turns out that was by design. During a talk on Saturday night, Heather Zimmerman told her husband he would regret it if he didn’t do something to recognize the moment today and later this winter decides to retire.
Even if he hadn’t come to that conclusion, the Nationals and their fans were going to make sure he got his recognition. He received a standing ovation for each of his four plate appearances, the first one sustained enough to get him to doff his helmet and wipe away a tear from behind his sunglasses.
There were ovations again in the third (when Zimmerman drew a bases-loaded walk), the fifth (when he struck out with the bases loaded) and the seventh (when he hit a 107.1 mph bullet on the ground to second base for an out).
And when he went to take his place at first base for the top of the eighth, Zimmerman found himself all alone on the field. A short while after, Josh Bell made his way over and informed him he was taking his place for the rest of the game. Players from both dugouts made their way onto the field as the crowd recognized what was happening and stood one last time for a sustained roar for Employee No. 11.
“I planned it, but I wanted to wait and see where we were at in the game,” Martinez said. “For me, it was really the right thing to do.”
Zimmerman waved to the visitors, waved to the crowd, blew a kiss to his family (including his parents, Keith and Cheryl, who were in attendance), hugged every member of the Nationals (including the injured Stephen Strasburg, who was on hand), hugged Martinez (who made a rare climb up to the field with his right foot still in a cast) and made his way back down the dugout steps one last time.
“I wanted to do it for the fans, for the people in the stadium,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, I have a special relationship with this fanbase and the community. And talking with Heather last night, I think if I do retire this offseason and I didn’t do anything today, I would’ve regretted it.”
There was another such moment for Avila before the top of the ninth, the retiring catcher replaced by rookie Keibert Ruiz and getting a comparable salute from fans and players from both teams.
“I honestly did not expect that,” Avila said. “Where we were at in the game, I just didn’t expect that. I was a little surprised by it, but it felt amazing.”
Then the game resumed. And a few minutes later, Rafael Devers was circling the bases after hitting the two-run homer off Kyle Finnegan that broke a 5-5 tie and ultimately propelled the Red Sox into the postseason while the Nationals head home for the winter.
Who could have imagined, when this season began six long months ago, that the Nationals would be sending Adon to the mound to make his major league debut in Game 162, a game with major postseason implications? OK, so the implications were for the visitors, not the home team. Even so, what an assignment for a 23-year-old who spent the majority of his season at Single-A Wilmington and made only one start at Triple-A Rochester.
Turns out Adon was more than up to the challenge. Displaying both stuff and poise, he struck out Enrique Hernández to open the proceedings, then went to business. With a fastball that reached 97 mph and a slider that induced 10 swings-and-misses, he struck out six of the first 12 batters he faced.
“It was more excitement than anything,” Adon said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I told myself from the beginning I was going to pound the zone, throw a lot of strikes. And it didn’t matter if it was Barry Bonds hitting. I wanted to throw strikes and pound the zone.”
The rookie made only one real mistake: a 1-2 fastball to Devers that resulted in a leadoff homer in the top of the fourth. But he followed that up with another strikeout of J.D. Martinez, pitched out of a jam in the fifth while facing the Boston lineup a third time and was given the opportunity to re-take the mound for the sixth.
Adon would be pulled three batters later, with a couple on base, but the ovation he received from the crowd as he departed was sustained and deserved. He struck out nine in his debut, a total previously reached among this club’s pitchers by Reynaldo López in 2017 and, of course, Strasburg in his 14-strikeout masterpiece in 2010.
“At the end, he did get a little bit tired,” Davey Martinez said. “But you’ve got to understand, his first time, a big crowd, he looked great. He didn’t let the crowd affect him. He went out and did his thing. His stuff was really, really good. I’m looking forward to him coming to spring training, getting ready and seeing where he’s at next year.”
Adon departed in line for the win, thanks to a series of rallies by the Nationals, even if there were multiple missed opportunities to deliver the really big blow.
They got a pair of doubles in the second from Bell and Jordy Mercer, the latter starting his third straight game at second base for the injured Luis García. They got Zimmerman’s bases-loaded walk in the third, much to the delight of a crowd that probably wishes he hit a ball really hard somewhere but happily cheered the 1,061st RBI of his career.
That Zimmerman walk knocked Chris Sale from the game, a surprising development to be sure but one the Red Sox felt they needed to make given the stakes. It did open the door for the Nationals to take more hacks against the Boston bullpen, though, and they delivered with a three-run fifth off Garrett Richards.
After Mercer’s bases-loaded dribbler to the mound brought home one teammate, Avila stepped up and ripped a two-run double to right, coasting into second base with the 396th and 397th RBIs of his career.
“With an opportunity there to drive in runs and try to extend our lead, I wanted to come through,” he said. “I wanted to hit something hard, and I got a good pitch and was able to put a good swing on it, so it felt really good.”
It was meaningful in that it extended the Nationals’ lead to 5-2. Of course, this bullpen needs as much of a cushion as possible, and a four-run lead with four innings to go is hardly comfortable.
Sure enough, the Red Sox came back against the bullpen. They got one inherited runner home off Patrick Murphy in the sixth. Then they got three runners home off Erick Fedde in the seventh, tying the game. Then they got the final two runs off Finnegan in the ninth, a fitting conclusion to a season that long ago went haywire for the Nats.
“The guys that were here all year long, they battled all year long,” Martinez said. “They pitched a lot, as we all know. They pitched a lot. And they battled. I’m proud of those guys. For the young guys, there were some growing pains. But I saw them get better.”