The Nats added another chapter to the Ryan Zimmerman, “Mr. Walkoff” legend book tonight, as he brought the game back from a deficit in their last at-bat yet again this season. The bloop single off Mets closer Bobby Parnell with the bases loaded in the 9th was his 14th game-winning plate appearance of his six-year career. The Nats have now won 20 games in their last at-bat, and 10 in sudden death situations.
The major league debut of Tom Milone on a comfortable September night in Washington was something of a preview for Nats fans. Milone, whose 12-6 year at Syracuse came with 155 strikeouts and just 16 walks, is a fearless medium-velocity pitcher with pinpoint command. What the fans will be talking about, though, isn’t how he wasn’t afraid to come in on the hands of the righties, it’s about what he did with his bat.
Milone jacked the first pitch he saw in the 2nd inning into the Nationals’ bullpen for a 3-run homer. This wasn’t a barely-clears-the-fence job, either, it was a bona fide legitimate home run that had all of Nats Park standing up. Soon as he made contact, that ball was clearly out. He became the 27th player in MLB history to hit the first pitch he faced for a home run, and the 8th pitcher. The last pitcher to do it was the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright in May of 2006.
The home run put the Nationals on top 5-0 in the 2nd inning and showed that the Nationals had finally figured out Dillon Gee. Gee had largely confounded the Nats in 3 previous outings, surrendering just a run per outing spread across 22 1/3 innings. While the big blast came from the bat of Milone, Ian Desmond lead the game off with a home run just inside the foul pole for his sixth homer of the year, and Roger Bernadina would smash one in the sixth into the Mets bullpen.
Milone’s offense wasn’t quite enough to hold the lead for the Nationals tonight. After surrendering four of his own in the fourth, Milone recovered enough to get out of the inning, but was lifted two batters into the fifth for Tom Gorzelanny. After the game, Manager Davey Johnson said that he lifted Milone, as he didn’t want to chance Milone taking the loss for the game. He had considered pulling Milone after the fourth, saying, “the thing about that home run, it takes a bit of energy from you. You get real high, you take a curtain call, first time out, you’ve used up a lot of energy just getting to the start.” No question Milone had a good night. The quote from Adam Kilgore of the Post is perfect: “When I was running down the first base line, I felt almost like I was dreaming.”
Gorzelanny would give back two runs in the 6th on a towering homer run by Jason Bay, his only mistake in 1.2 innings of otherwise solid relief. Tyler Clippard struggled in the 7th, facing six batters, walking two, giving up a hit and a pair of sacrifices, including the go-ahead run in the 7th. Sean Burnett and Henry Rodriguez each went an inning of work tonight, with Rodriguez striking out three on 15 pitches (6 in excess of 100mph), and Burnett working a solid 9th for the victory.
The bottom of the ninth was fascinating to watch take shape. You could see on the horizon Zimmerman, batting fifth in the inning, and know that the Nationals just wanted to get him to the plate no matter what. Jesus Flores (3-4, R) lead off the 9th with a single, and advanced on a wild pitch from Parnell, one of four balls he’d through to pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes. With Parnell’s control being a bit of an issue this evening, it took five pitches for Ian Desmond to bunt Bixler (running for Flores) and Gomes over into scoring position. The most confounding moment of the night came next, when the Mets chose to intentionally walk Roger Bernadina to load the bases for Zimmerman, he of the two walk-off grand slams, and eleven other game-winning at-bats.
Zimmerman would break his bat on a 100mph 4-seam fastball, but that was enough to do the job, as it fell in shallow right field, and Bixler and Gomes came screaming around third to score. Pandemonium. After the game, Johnson would say, “I was looking for a rocket, but I’ll take it.” So would the Nats fans.
Notes: Shortly before the game on Saturday, pitcher Stephen Strasburg spoke with some of the sports media here in DC after his side session in the bullpen. According to MLB.com’s Bill Ladson, Strasburg will make four starts this season, and MASN’s Byron Kerr has the math working out to have him starting Tuesday the 6th (vs. LA), Sunday the 11th (vs. Houston), Friday the 16th (vs. Florida), and Friday the 23rd (vs. Atlanta). Strasburg also reported that he would be on an innings limit similar to Jordan Zimmermann’s from this season, which would be about 160 IP next season, or somewhere between 20 and 30 starts.
Tomorrow’s Starters: Livan Hernandez (8-12) starts his last of the season tomorrow against Doug Pelfrey (7-11) in a matinée at 1:35pm at Nats Park. It’ll be followed by the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team game on the field. The start could be Hernandez’s last in a Nationals uniform. Given his 44 wins are the most since the team has moved to DC, and his innings totals are nothing short of astronomical, this is a bittersweet day for Livo. He’ll be staying with the club to watch the new young pitchers like Tom Milone and Brad Peacock and give feedback to the Nationals for the last month of the year. It’s not clear if the Nationals will move to sign him for another year in 2012, but I would expect that not to be the case. Thank you, Livo.