PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Zimmerman has often talked about his ability to stay relaxed in critical moments at the plate, understanding that the pressure in those situations is not on himself but on the opposing pitcher. He’s been able to thrive so many times with the game on the line, though, not only by taking pressure off himself but also by recognizing that often a simple base hit is all that’s needed.
“I think in those situations — I’ve been in a lot of them — and the biggest thing I try to do is keep it simple and not try to do too much,” he said. “Some people try to drive the ball, or some people try to hit home runs. That’s when you get yourself in trouble. You’ve just got to try to make good contact, try and hit the ball up the middle and hopefully good things will happen.”
Very good things happened for Zimmerman and the Nationals in the top of the 10th inning Saturday night. Facing an 0-2 count against Phillies left-hander Jake Diekman, with two on and two out, Zimmerman laced a 100-mph fastball back up the middle, the single that drove home Denard Span and sent the Nats to a much-needed, 5-3 victory at Citizens Bank Park.
It was the 24th game-winning RBI Zimmerman has produced in his career in the eighth inning or later, which is believed to be a new Expos/Nationals franchise record, one previously held by Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.
“If that’s the case, that’s pretty good,” manager Matt Williams said. “That’s pretty special, with the amount of great players that came through the Expos organization. So if that’s the case, that’s a special talent. He takes a single when he needs it.”
Taking a single against the flame-throwing Diekman was no easy task. Zimmerman studied the left-hander as he faced four teammates earlier in the inning — Span walked, Anthony Rendon flied out to right, Jayson Werth grounded into a fielder’s choice (with Chase Utley making an ill-conceived attempt to retire the lead runner at second base) and Adam LaRoche struck out — and came away without much of a firm scouting report.
“The sequences and the pitches he threw to the hitters before, he didn’t really have any pattern,” he said. “He threw Rochie, I think, all offspeed and one fastball. I really didn’t know what to expect. I haven’t faced him much, either.”
Diekman got ahead of Zimmerman 0-2, leaving the slugger with no choice but to sit on a fastball and hope he could react to anything else.
“With two strikes, for sure,” he said. “Because if he throws it 100 and you’re not looking for it, then you’ve got no chance.”
Diekman indeed threw it 100, down in the zone but still a strike. Zimmerman calmly stuck his bat out and drove the ball right back up the middle, sending it into center field and sending Span around third to score the go-ahead run. Werth scored moments later on a wild pitch, adding a key insurance run.
Did Zimmerman realize it had been a 100-mph fastball he had just hit?
“I was just so happy to untie the game and hopefully get back to the hotel,” he said.
The Nationals were able to head back to their downtown hotel in good spirits after a 4-hour, 3-minute marathon. Not to mention a rare extra-inning win. They’re now 3-8 in extras, with their last two victories coming thanks to game-winning RBI from none other than the longstanding Face of the Franchise.
“I don’t care what the record of that team [the Phillies] is, they’re a good team,” Zimmerman said. “They’ve obviously won a lot of games. They’ve won the World Series. They have players who know how to win games. No matter what people say about them, you come in here and face A.J. Burnett and Cole Hamels and have to go through that lineup they have, it’s not easy to win here. So to get that win tonight, a huge win coming back with a day game tomorrow right before the All-Star break, it’s a big win.”