ST. LOUIS — Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate, the throng of 38,940 at Busch Stadium standing, applauding and holding up cell phone cameras in hopes of capturing the moment Michael Wacha threw a no-hitter in the ninth start of his career.
Zimmerman had seen his Nationals teammates flail away all night at the 22-year-old right-hander, managing only three baserunners — two walks and an error — and connecting only a few times on line drives that happened to be hit directly at a Cardinals defender. He himself had yet to even make contact, striking out twice before drawing a walk, baffled by Wacha's assortment of mid-90s fastballs and high-80s changeups.
Now the last man standing between a rookie pitcher and the record book, Zimmerman decided to take a whack at Wacha's first-pitch fastball with two outs in the ninth. He didn't get good wood on it, tapping a chopper right over the mound. He put his head down and took off for first base, never seeing the ball tip off Wacha's glove, never seeing Pete Kozma field it in his barehand, never seeing the shortstop's off-balance throw pull Matt Adams off the bag and feeling only a gust of wind as the first baseman's swipe tag drew nothing but air.
Just like that, with a 75-foot single, Zimmerman denied history.
"Baseball is weird," the Nationals slugger said. "We hit balls on the screws all night, and that's the swing. That's the hit that breaks it up."
The Nationals still lost Tuesday night, 2-0, capping a gut-wrenching, 24-hour stretch in which they were first eliminated from the playoff race and then 1-hit by a rookie. But they did breathe a collective sigh of relief after avoiding the ignominy of having the first no-hitter pitched against a Washington ballclub in 47 years.
"We're trying to win that ballgame," Adam LaRoche said. "And then you get in the ninth inning, and then it's just: 'Let's get a hit and not be on the highlights for the next 10 years.' So Zim bailed us out."
Wacha may not have pulled it off, but it's tough to imagine a pitcher getting any closer to doing it. The 6-foot-6 hurler didn't really experience any close calls in the 8 2/3 innings before Zimmerman's squibber. There were a few line drives, but none required extraordinary effort on the part of St. Louis' defenders.
Wacha retired the first 14 batters he faced, then saw his bid for a perfect game spoiled when second baseman Matt Carpenter let LaRoche's hard grounder scoot through his legs for an error. The rookie later walked Zimmerman to lead off the seventh and walked LaRoche to lead off the eighth, but never let any National advance beyond first base.
That Wacha did all this 15 months removed from his final college outing at Texas A&M, with the Cardinals trying to move a step closer toward the NL Central title in the season's final week, only added to the sense of awe everyone in the ballpark experienced.
"Wow," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny gushed. "You can't ... the stuff ... the composure ... I mean, just watching him there in the ninth. ... He was able to tune everything out. For a kid to do that, against a lineup like this, at this time of the season, hard to really get your head around it. Man, that was some kind of fun to watch."
Fun for the Cardinals and their fans, yes. For the Nationals, not so much.
"You never want to [be no-hit]," said Davey Johnson, who never has been in 2,441 games as a big-league manager. "You're doing everything you can to wish him back luck, talking about it, what you don't do on the other side."
"The whole time, I was just trying to get the guys back inside," said Gio Gonzalez, highly effective himself in allowing only two runs over seven innings but the hard-luck loser nonetheless. "I didn't want them to get cold feet sitting out there the whole time. I just wanted them to come back in there and try to swing the bat."
Gonzalez's teammates never did get anything going. They came up to bat in the ninth, still hoping to rally and pull off an improbable victory, but first needing a hit. Pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi grounded out to short. Denard Span — who drew some boos three innings earlier when he tried to bunt his way on base — battled to a 3-2 count but then froze on a changeup from Wacha for the second out.
"For whatever reason, it took me until my last at-bat to realize he was working fast and he was rushing some of us," said Span, who stepped out of the box at one point, drawing more boos. "He's rushing my timing, rushing my flow. He's trying to throw my timing off, so let me call timeout and take a breath, take my time. And I wound up drawing it to 3-2. But he pitched good. He made a good pitch 3-2, threw me a nasty changeup, struck me out."
So it all came down to Zimmerman, who took the exact opposite approach that Span did. After struggling to make contact with Wacha's changeup in previous at-bats, he went up there hacking at the first fastball he saw.
"The changeup was so good, I didn't want to get to that," he explained.
Zimmerman didn't make solid contact by any means, but his placement was near-perfect. And his hustle down the line ensured the Nationals wouldn't be no-hit for the first time in their nine seasons of existence and that a Washington ballclub would avoid being no-hit for the first time since the Indians' Sonny Siebert blanked the Senators on June 10, 1966.
"Just using my blazing speed," the not-so-blazing Zimmerman said with a smirk. "Trying to get there as fast as I can."
"I guess it just wasn't to be," Wacha said. "But it was still a pretty special night."