With the Washington Nationals nursing a 2-0 lead late in the game, a small — but steady and noticable — amount of fans were making their way down Half Street toward the Metro, hoping to miss out on some of the Opening Day (and rush hour) congestion leaving the stadium.
They missed quite an ending.
The Nats, specifically Brad Lidge and Ryan Zimmerman, squandered that two-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, loaded the bases themselves with one out in the bottom of the same inning, then capitalized on some lousy Cincinnati Reds relief pitching in the bottom of the tenth to escpae with a 3-2 win, extending their early season winning ways and an N.L. East-leading 5-2 record.
The 10th inning winning rally started when reliever Alfredo Simon, who was picked up late in spring training after being waived by the Baltimore Orioles, hit leadoff batter Ryan Zimmerman with his first pitch. After Adam LaRoche popped out, Jayson Werth reached down and soft-served an off-speed pitch into short left, moving Zimmerman up 90 feet. Xavier Nady moved both runners over with a tapper to third that Scott Rolen had no choice to to got to first with.
So with first base empty, the Reds had a meeting on the mound and decided to pitch to Roger Bernadina rather than set up a force at any base to face Wilson Ramos.
An interesting strategy, regardless. But for any strategy to work, the players have to execute. All Simon executed was himself, throwing the first pitch to Bernadina in the dirt, which scooted away from catcher Devin Mesoraco far enough to allow Zimmerman to come busting down the line with the winning run.
No one was happier than starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez, the first player out of the dugout after Zimmerman scored. Gonzalez was superb in his seven shutout innings. The lefty allowed just two hits, no walks and struck out seven. For a pitcher who’s walked better than four per nine innings in his career, it’s a good step to see him limit the free passes. But Gonzalez was actually instrumental in the Nats getting the lead in the first place.
The Nats offensive “explosion” came in the fifth inning and was started by an unlikely source, Gonzalez himself. He looped the first pitch from Mat Latos to short left field for his first Major League hit with one out in the inning. Ian Desmond followed with his second single of the day, then Danny Espinosa had another long at bat, coaxing his second walk of the day to load ‘em up.
Zimmerman pushed a slow bouncing ball to short where Zack Cozart had only one play, to cut down Gonzalez by a step at home. But with two down, the Nats hottest hitter so far this season, Adam LaRoche, delivered again with a single to right center, plating both Desmond and Espinosa to give the Nats a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, things fell apart in the ninth inning. Afer a routine ground ball for the first out, Lidge worked carefully around Joey Votto and walked him. Scott Rolen laced a double past Zimmerman at third, and they intentionally walked Jay Bruce to laod the bases. Lidge got ahead of Ryan Ludwick and coaxed the outfielder to roll over on a breaking ball to Zimmerman, but the grounder ate up the normally reliable fielder, going down the line to score the tying runs.
The Nats made things interesting in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out against Reds reliever Jose Arredondo on a Wilson Ramos double, Mark DeRosa walk and Desmond infield single. But Espinosa put the ball in play in literally the worst spot — right at the pitcher. Arrendondo went home for the second out of the inning and Mesoraco fired a strike to first to complete the rally-killing double play, with Mr. Walk-Off, Ryan Zimmerman, in the on-deck circle.
Zimmerman just had to wait until the tenth inning to make his impact. And Alfredo Simon certainly helped the cause.
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THE GOOD: Gio. What a tremendous effort in his D.C. debut. The pitching is one thing, but he was all smiles the entire time around the bases in the fifth. This guy loves the game and this city is absolutely going to fall in live with him.
Ian Desmond was 3-for-5 with a run, upping his early season average to .406. Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth added two hits apiece.
THE BAD: Zimmerman. 0-for-4 with four runners stranded, and an unusually suspect day from him in the field. In addition to the play he couldn’t make in the ninth inning (one that is normally routine for him), he bobbled another ball earlier, then threw it away allowing the runner to take second. He easily could have been charged with two errors on the play.
THE UGLY: Injury news. On top of Wednesday’s news of Drew Storen’s elbow surgery, before the game we found out Michale Morse was being shut down for six weeks to repair the tear in his right lat muscle. On top of that, it was revealed Nats first round draft picks Anthony Rendon suffered a partial ankle fracture, and Brian Goodwin pulled his hamstring in a game in Hagerstown April 9.
THE STATS: Nine hits, four walks, two strikeouts. 2-for-7 with RISP, 10 LOB, one GIDP. Error: Zimmerman (1).
NEXT GAME: Friday at 7:05 against the Reds. Jordan Zimmerman (0-1, 1.29) hosts Bronson Arroyo (0-0, 5.68).