NEW YORK — The ball careened off Zach Lutz's bat at a 45-degree angle and straight down the first-base line, where Adam LaRoche could only attempt an all-out diving attempt that was just a split-second late. And when the ball landed and left a poof of white chalk, Gio Gonzalez knew his bid for history was up in smoke as well.
There are 1-hitters, and then there are 1-hitters like Gonzalez tossed Monday night to lead the Nationals to a 9-0 thumping of the Mets, where the difference between a spot in the record books and merely a dominant performance came down to that poof of chalk behind first base at Citi Field and umpire John Hirschbeck's (correct) call of a fair ball and thus a clean base hit in the bottom of the seventh inning.
"I'm begging with [Hirschbeck]: 'Make something up. Tell 'em I called timeout before the pitch. Or interference. Something,'" a surprisingly disconsolate LaRoche said later. "Ah, it just makes me sick."
Based on the vibe inside the Nationals' clubhouse, you might have thought this game had been lost, not won in dominating fashion. The Nats did, after all, club five home runs in the game's first five innings. They did, after all, win for the 20th time in 29 games to improve to 5 games over the .500 mark, matching their high-water point of the season. And they did, after all, gain a game in the NL Wild Card standings thanks to the Reds' 2-0 loss to the Cubs, leaving them 7 games back with 19 to play.
Oh, yeah. They also saw Gonzalez toss only the second complete-game, 1-hitter since the Nationals arrived in D.C. nine years ago.
Yet some insisted this felt like a missed opportunity to be a part of something truly special.
"It does," LaRoche said. "It does for me, especially. Obviously, I have the best chance of preventing that. So, I don't know. We won. Great game. He threw great. Was good to see him put nine innings like that together, just dominant pitching. Would've been nice if they'd got a real base hit in the eighth or ninth."
Even Gonzalez — happy to earn his 10th win, to notch the first 1-hitter of his career and to help keep his team's slim playoff hopes alive — couldn't fully celebrate this one knowing how close he came to a no-hitter.
Had the left-hander seen a replay of Lutz's oh-so-close single?
"I didn't," he said. "I didn't want to see it. I'd rather take your word for it."
Gonzalez had been electric to that point. After issuing a one-out walk in the bottom of the first, he retired 17 straight batters and pitched with the kind of aggressiveness and efficiency he has been known to abandon at times in his career, strangely enough often when handed a big lead.
Gonzalez had as big a lead as he'll ever get on Monday, thanks to home runs from Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Tyler Moore and Wilson Ramos, which combined gave the Nationals a 9-0 cushion in the fifth. So the lefty just started pounding the strike zone and wound up reaching the seventh inning on only 72 pitches.
"It felt like it was just all three pitches were right where I wanted it to be," he said. "Arm felt great. First time I felt like that in a long time."
As the fourth inning became the fifth inning, then the sixth inning, then the seventh, everyone in the Nationals dugout recognized the scenario.
"I mean, we see the scoreboard every inning, obviously, so we know what's going on," Zimmerman said. "But once you get past the fifth, sixth inning ... you start to take it seriously."
"Tonight I saw him really good," Ramos said. "I was thinking that's an opportunity for him to throw a perfect game, no-hitter."
"And there's a game you don't want to take anybody out," manager Davey Johnson said. "You've got a big lead, you don't want to take anybody out, you want to leave your best defense in there. Even with that lead, he's got a 1-hit shutout going. I'm not taking out guys. I just explained to them: 'Boys, we're putting our best foot forward here for this guy. He's pitched a heck of a ballgame.'"
But then Lutz stepped to the plate to lead off the seventh and immediately swung at Gonzalez's first-pitch fastball, poking that line drive the other way and celebrating as it hit the chalk for his team's lone hit of the game.
"I hit it off the end of the bat a little bit and it landed right on the line," Lutz said. "Just some good luck right there. ... Gio was dominating the whole night."
"He's a good hitter," Gonzalez said. "He's up there to do his job. It's just nice that he at least swung the bat. You don't want a guy bunting on you."
Gonzalez looked depressed for a moment, but he went right back to work and finished what he started. He recorded the game's final nine outs, pumped his fist when he got Andrew Brown to fly out to left to end it and then accepted congratulations upon tossing only the second 1-hitter ever thrown by a Nationals starting pitcher, matching Jordan Zimmermann's feat from earlier this season.
And yet there was just a twinge of despair in the Nationals clubhouse afterward. Yes, Gonzalez had been brilliant. And yes, the Nationals won another game in impressive fashion.
But, oh, if only that ball had been a couple inches to either direction, perhaps finding LaRoche's glove or at least brown dirt in foul territory, instead of producing that unfortunate poof of white smoke.
"I'm sure he was disappointed," Zimmerman said. "Frustrated probably isn't the right word. I hope he's happy with a 1-hit shutout. Disappointed is probably right, because he threw the ball well enough tonight to get the no-hitter."