Early fly balls defined one thing: anything in the air was going to drift Saturday night, sometimes so much so it would clear the wall, throats and hearts.
Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning made it over the left field fence by the slightest of margins. It hanged in the air of an already-buzzing park finally stirred by what was an otherwise destitute offense. Bryce Harper had homered two batters before Zimmerman, a towering shot to right field that needed no help for warm weather or a slight breeze. Zimmerman’s needed everything as it arced through the night. If there was an extra exhale from someone behind home plate, that may have been the deciding factor in pushing it over the fence and into the flower beds, just beyond Chicago left fielder Ben Zobrist.
In 15 minutes, the day, and perhaps the series, had been flipped on its head by the two home runs. Washington trailed throughout the night adding to the tension, adding to the lore that it can’t come through in the playoffs. Home runs from organizational stalwarts Harper and Zimmerman in the eighth changed everything for a day. The Nationals won, 6-3, to tie the best-of-five National League Division Series with the Chicago Cubs 1-1.
“I was kind of bewildered because it’s not too many teams or pitchers that have held us in check like that for a couple days,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “I just knew in the bottom of my heart that we were going to explode for some numbers, which we’ve done all year.”
Harper’s homer brought stirring relief. Zimmerman’s led to delirium. After he crossed home plate, the normally stoic Zimmerman hammered forearms and smashed a double high-five with waiting Daniel Murphy. Harper bounded out of the dugout to slam into Zimmerman’s chest, hair flow at a maximum. They had combined to uncork the angst that had piled up in the park since the 7:08 first pitch Friday night.
Such revelry appeared far off. The Nationals’ offense was again a non-participant for seven innings. They had two hits coming into the eighth and trailed, 3-1, because Chicago sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo had again combined to produce runs. Rizzo hit a two-run home run off Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez — five innings pitched, three earned runs, stable but not outstanding — in the fourth inning. As Cubs starter Jon Lester sawed through the Nationals’ lineup, the evening was replicating the feel of Friday night.
“You do your best to keep your spirits up,” Zimmerman said. “You get frustrated, especially when Stephen [Strasburg] throws the ball like he did the night before, and Gio threw the ball well tonight. Everyone’s doing their job, besides us, scoring runs.”
Harper started the public portion of his day by being surprised when he walked into the press conference room. He wore a sweatshirt, shorts and a backward hat. He didn’t know he would be sitting in front of multiple television cameras and a dozen reporters, so he apologized for his attire before explaining how he has been playing in pressure-filled games since he was 10 years old and wasn’t too worried about what was to come in Game 2.
Zimmerman descended the dugout steps after running through fielding practice and searched for a towel. The jumbo fan stationed in the far corner of the dugout was blasting. Cool air was seeping through the vents in the back of the dugout bench. Zimmerman reached for a white towel off the folded stack atop the bench to wipe the sweat from his face before declaring, “It’s warm.” It was 82 degrees on Oct. 7. The flags atop right field were blowing toward left even then.
Once evening settled and Harper stepped to the plate to face Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr., he had an 0-for-3 on his ledger. Lester had tormented Harper in each at-bat earlier, but this was a hard-throwing right-handed reliever who had dominated left-handed hitters this season, allowing just a .119 average to them. The first pitch was a curveball in the dirt that Harper inaccurately flailed at (“Great swing on that pitch,” he said). Three high-riding fastballs followed. All were balls. Harper figured Edwards was not going to throw a strike in a 3-1 count, maybe a curveball in the dirt. He assumed correctly about the pitch choice. He was wrong about location. Edwards flipped a curveball right into the middle of the plate.
“Saw the loop in the curveball and said, ‘Why not swing as hard as you can?’” Harper said.
Murphy’s presence put Zimmerman in position to face left-handed Mike Montgomery. Cubs manager Joe Maddon had summoned Montgomery to matchup with Murphy a batter in front of Zimmerman. Maddon left him in the game after Murphy singled to left field. Zimmerman took a changeup for a strike. He connected with the second changeup on the next pitch, then watched.
His fly ball was moving toward left field. Zobrist drifted toward the wall. In the bullpen, closer Sean Doolittle was shielded from the ball’s path, so he watched Zimmerman. The crowd roared, Zimmerman was almost still and Doolittle was confused.
“He was kind of standing there and I couldn’t tell if he was admiring it,” Doolittle said. “I couldn’t tell if he was trying to keep it fair. I couldn’t tell if he wasn’t sure about it or not. It felt like it was in the air forever.”
Zobrist jumped. The ball landed in the flower beds just beyond the fence. Zimmerman spread his arms at first base. Had the flowers not been there to push the fence forward and fans back, leaving Zobrist a couple feet short of the ball’s landing spot, Zimmerman would have only produced an out. Instead, elation.
“I couldn’t tell you anything about that run around the bases,” Zimmerman said.
Doolittle finished the Cubs in the ninth. Afterward, Maddon was being asked about his choice of relievers. Baker was smiling. Adam Lind, whose pinch-hit single began the eighth inning, sat in the press conference room with Zimmerman. Harper joined them after extricating himself from the swarm of family members outside the Nationals’ clubhouse that was dodging travel luggage being loaded into a truck. Monday in Chicago, the Nationals will turn to Max Scherzer in pursuit of a series lead.
“I think the train’s coming,” Harper said.
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