Defensive gems keep Nationals' hopes alive

Defensive gems keep Nationals' hopes alive
September 5, 2013, 12:15 am
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PHILADELPHIA — If the Nationals' season ends Sept. 29 in disappointing fashion, they undoubtedly will look back at the countless games they lost because they couldn't deliver in key situations, whether at the plate, on the mound or especially in the field.

If, however, the Nationals somehow are able to extend their season into October — and the odds are still stacked against them, though not to the point of impossibility — they might well look back at Wednesday night's 3-2 victory and rejoice over their ability to execute multiple highlight-reel defensive plays at critical moments.

"We haven't had that many games where those breaks have gone our way," reliever Craig Stammen said. "It's usually the other way around. So it's finally fun to be on that side like it was last year."

A tense, taut win at Citizens Bank Park gave the Nationals a series victory, moved them to 71-68 and — thanks to the Cardinals' wild, 16-inning triumph over the Reds — brought them to within 6 1/2 games of the NL's final Wild Card berth.

This one hinged on the events of the seventh and eighth innings.

Trailing 2-1 most of the night, the Nationals tied the game in the top of the seventh on Ryan Zimmerman's solo homer. The Phillies, though, threatened in the bottom of the inning, putting runners on second and third with one out against starter Jordan Zimmermann.

That's when pinch-hitter Kevin Frandsen hit a sharp grounder toward third base, forcing Zimmerman to make a tough, backhand grab followed by an on-target throw to the plate to get the lead runner.

"When it's hit that hard, you can at least take a split [second] and get some sort of seams, which helps a lot," Zimmerman said.

That was no easy play, but it paled in comparison to the next one. With two outs and the go-ahead run now on second, Cesar Hernandez hit a slow roller toward the right side of the infield, past a lunging Adam LaRoche. Steve Lombardozzi, though, ranged far to his left to get the ball, then threw across his body toward first base, with Zimmermann charging hard to beat the speedy Hernandez to the bag.

The problem: Unable to get much on the throw, Lombardozzi skipped it into the dirt, forcing Zimmermann to attempt a risky short-hop scoop.

"I was just hoping Lombo was going to hit me in the chest, and he threw it at my feet," Zimmermann said. "I knew I had to come up with something."

He did, somehow managing to secure the ball and step on the base a split-second before Hernandez to end the inning. Had the ball eluded him, it would've rolled to the dugout and allowed the go-ahead run to score.

"He made an unbelievable play," Lombardozzi said. "That's on him. Making the play, picking the ball and touching the base at the same time."

"Just an awesome play on both sides," LaRoche said. "I don't know how Zim — no offense to Zim — I don't know that he could do that again."

"I've got to give a lot of credit to Rochie," Zimmermann said. "He taught me everything I know over there."

Needing to plate a run themselves now to take the lead, the Nationals morphed into a small-ball, manufacturing lineup for one inning. They somehow got the job done via Wilson Ramos' walk, Scott Hairston's first sacrifice bunt in four years, pinch-runner Jeff Kobernus' second career stolen base and Lombardozzi's fielder's choice chopper over the mound, with Kobernus beating the throw home.

"That's on Kobe," Lombardozzi said. "That was a great read on his part. He's got speed, so he made it happen right there. It was huge."

The Phillies still had one more push in them, though, and put runners on the corners with one out in the bottom of the eighth, setting up yet another key defensive play. When Stammen got Darin Ruf to whiff at a 2-2 slider in the dirt, the inning's second out was recorded. But the ball scooted away, and as Jhonatan Solano — just inserted as catcher after Kobernus pinch-ran for Ramos — scampered to retrieve it, Chase Utley bolted from third base trying to score the tying run.

Solano got the ball and had to make an instant decision: Flip the ball to Stammen, who was furiously trying to cover the plate, or dive and try to make the tag himself.

"When I saw [Utley] for the first time, he had started running already," Solano said. "And I said: 'If I throw the ball to Stammen, I've got no chance."

So Solano — the shortest guy on the roster — stretched his entire frame in a last-ditch effort to tag Utley before the Philadelphia star's right hand crossed the plate. And he did it. Barely.

"It's exciting," Solano said. "I saved that run. If they get that run, we could be playing right now. I made the play."

Across the room, Ramos cracked: "That's routine for me."

As they showered and dressed and prepared to depart for a weekend series in Miami, players kept one eye on clubhouse TVs showing the Reds-Cardinals game. It wouldn't end until midnight, but when it did, the Nationals found themselves 6 1/2 games back with 23 to play and Cincinnati staring at another showdown with St. Louis on Thursday in advance of a weekend series with the blazing hot Dodgers.

"We don't feel like we're out of this thing," Johnson said.