Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Smiles were aplenty following this 2-1, walk-off win.
So when the Nats twice managed to push a man across the plate in the final three innings of tonight's nip-and-tuck, 2-1 victory over the Mets, it was cause for legitimate celebration on South Capitol Street.
This win would not have been possible without a fantastic pitching performance from Livan Hernandez (seven innings of one-run ball), not to mention effective relief from Drew Storen and Matt Capps. And Nyjer Morgan's two-out, RBI single off Johan Santana in the seventh constituted as clutch a hit as any Nationals batter has collected all season.
But we're going to focus here on the ninth-inning rally that ultimately sealed this victory, because it featured four consecutive quality plate appearances, all of which were necessary to push the winning run across. Let's break it down...
1. WILLIE HARRIS: WALK
Admit it: How many of you were groaning when you saw Harris step to the plate with one out and nobody on to face left-hander Pedro Feliciano? Harris, owner of a .155 batting average. Harris, owner of one hit in his last 24 at-bats. Harris, who had only 14 previous plate appearances against lefties this year.
Well, the guy who has made a career out of beating the Mets came through once again with a plate appearance Jim Riggleman called "tremendous."
Feliciano immediately fell behind in the count with two misplaced fastballs, but he bounced back to even the count. His 2-2 pitch, a slider, was low and outside, so Harris took it to run the count full. Somehow, Willie managed to lay off a tough 3-2 fastball that just barely came in below the strike zone, and thus trotted down to first base representing the winning run.
"I knew I was facing a tough pitcher," he said. "I know Feliciano is tough on all lefties. But we had nobody else on the bench. I just went up there and had my mind focused on trying to hit a ball up the middle. Fortunately, I was able to draw that walk and our guy got the sacrifice fly to drive me in."
The importance of Harris' walk wasn't lost on his manager.
"Regardless of what his numbers say across the board, he grinds out an at-bat for you," Riggleman said. "That was huge."
2. NYJER MORGAN: BUNT SINGLE
How many times have we seen Morgan try to get a bunt down this season and fail miserably in the process? This time, though, Nyjer dropped a perfect drag bunt, pushing it past Feliciano and forcing first baseman Ike Davis to make an impossible play.
Morgan, hitting a scant .228 against lefties this season, had already produced that clutch RBI single off Santana two innings earlier. This time, he realized his best chance was to try to catch Feliciano and the Mets napping.
"I didn't want to see all that nasty stuff Feliciano has," Morgan said. "I just figured as soon as he comes over with that first pitch, just get it down and try to make it happen. At least get Willie Harris over to second base so we can make it happen from there."
Nyjer couldn't have executed the bunt any better, leaving runners on first and second with one out for ...
3. CRISTIAN GUZMAN: SINGLE TO LEFT
Guzman is hardly known as the world's most-patient hitter, but he displayed some will power in taking two straight balls from Feliciano to open the at-bat. That put the pressure on the New York reliever to throw a strike, and Guzman pounced on the 2-0 fastball and lofted a sinking liner to left.
Though it looked like a clean hit all the way, from his vantage point at second base, Harris wasn't 100 percent confident left fielder Jesus Feliciano (no relation to the pitcher) wasn't going to make a diving catch. So Harris held up ever so briefly before taking off for third. He still might have attempted to come all the way around to score right there, but Pat Listach had the stop sign up and Harris knew it would have been the wrong move to go for it anyway.
"I don't want a take a chance and get thrown out at the plate when we've got our RBI guy [Zimmerman] coming up," Harris said. "I knew what I was doing the whole time. I'd rather lose with Zim at the plate than lose getting thrown out at the plate."
So now the bases were loaded with one out for ...
4. RYAN ZIMMERMAN: SACRIFICE FLY TO RIGHT FIELD
Before Zimmerman could dig in at the plate, Mets manager Jerry Manuel had to do a little re-arranging of things. Make that A LOT of re-arranging. First off, he replaced Feliciano with right-hander Ryota Igarashi, trying to set up a better match-up with Zimmerman. Then he pulled the other Feliciano in from left field and stationed him right in front of second base, creating a five-man infield. The remaining two outfielder shaded to the left a bit, but basically Manuel allowed left field to remain wide open.
Had Manuel ever tried anything like that before?
"Yes, I have," he said. "And it worked. The last time it worked was when I was with the White Sox in Kansas City. That's a long time ago."
And what was Zimmerman's reaction when he saw five defensive players standing within 100 feet of him?
"A lot of people in the infield. Try to hit it in the air, I guess," he said. "I've never been up when it's happened, but I've seen it before. There's no room on the ground."
With the Mets conceding anything hit to left field, it would have been tempting for Zimmerman to just try to pull the ball and stroke a guaranteed, game-winning hit.
But that's not the way Zimmerman usually tries to approach an at-bat, and he wasn't about to try something new now, with the game on the line.
"You don't want to get away from what you do," he said. "If you try to pull the ball too much, then you hit into a double play. You've just got to take what they give you. ... But I was just trying to drive the ball to right-center like I always do."
Zimmerman pulled that off in textbook fashion. He lofted a fly ball to center, just deep enough to force Jeff Francoeur to have to make a perfect throw to the plate to have a chance at nailing the tagging Harris. Francoeur couldn't do it, so Harris came racing in with the winning run and was greeted with a bear hug from Adam Kennedy.
Over at first base, Zimmerman was mobbed by his teammates, who hadn't had a chance to celebrate a walk-off win in quite some time.
"It's nice to win a 1-run game," Zimmerman said.
It's even nicer when it comes about thanks to perfect execution by four different batters in succession. Four outstanding at-bats in a row to produce a much-needed victory.