May 20, 2015, 12:22 AM EDT
On Tuesday night in bottom of the 10th inning, with one of the best relievers in baseball on the mound and a chance to close the gap on first place for the first time this season, the Nationals had a rather fortuitous turn of the lineup as they aimed for their 11th comeback win of the year.
Yunel Escobar led off with a walk and behind him awaited the hottest hitter in baseball. The focus of the 37,355 in attendance at Nationals Park closed in on a matchup of titanic lefties.
One the best slugger in the National League at this very moment. The other a towering 6-foot-7 lefty who mixes mid-90s heat with a slider that comes across his body like a tidal wave.
With Bryce Harper and Andrew Miller of the Yankees going at it, however, on deck waiting his turn was one of the most clutch hitters in baseball history. Ryan Zimmerman watched Harper strike out on a 3-2 slider and then proceeded to hand the Nationals a victory with his 10th career walk-off home run.
Zimmerman is only 30 years old, yet he’s already only three behind the all-time leader, Jim Thome, who has 13 walk-off homers. Right behind Thome with 12 are guys like Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson. The only active players with more than Zimmerman are David Ortiz and Albert Pujols, who each have 11.
That’s not bad company for Zimmerman, who for much of his career has battled injuries and at times played with a lot less talent surrounding him than Mantle and Ruth had.
“I’m just lucky to be in that situation that much. It’s obviously special, and something that once I’m done, I think I’ll look back on and appreciate a lot more,” Zimmerman said. “Right now, I’m just happy for the win and be able to do something to help us win games. That’s the important thing.”
Zimmerman may not be able to appreciate it fully quite yet, but his coaches and teammates sure can.
“Pretty special isn’t it? You don’t realize things like that until it’s pointed out,” manager Matt Williams said.
“It just means that he knows what he’s doing. He hits to the situation like he did tonight. He got ahead in the count and got a good pitch to hit. He’s got power to all fields.”
“It’s amazing. He’s not a real emotional guy. He just doesnt get caught up in the moment and try to do too much,” Drew Storen said. “So he just goes up there and has a professional at-bat, no matter what. Obviously, more times than not, it works out pretty well for him. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Zimmerman’s first walk-off home run also happened to come against the Yankees, that one on Father’s Day of 2006. This homer was a winding line drive to right field that bounced off the foul pole.
“It was real fair at the beginning, and at the very end it started to take a right turn. I knew I hit it good enough, it was just gonna be a matter of whether it stays fair, and I got lucky to hit the pole and sometimes you just get lucky,” he said.
Zimmerman raised his right fist in the air as he ran from first to second and was doused with Gatorade at home plate. Then, as part of a new custom for walk-off wins, he was drenched with chocolate sauce by starter Max Scherzer.
This was Zimmerman’s first time getting chocolate sauced and he’s not sure what to think of it.
“It’s alright. That was a pretty aggressive celebration. But that’s Max, so it’s good,” he said.
Everything feels better when you’re in first place, or tied for it as the Nationals stand after Tuesday’s 8-6 win. After starting the year 7-13, the Nats are 16-4 since. They made up an eight-game division deficit in just 22 days.
“We knew we were gonna play baseball like we were supposed to. There’s gonna be times where you don’t play good like we did at the beginning of the year, the key is obviously to not have long stretches like that,” Zimmerman said.
“When it happens at the beginning of the year, everyone overreacts and puts too much into it. We just kind of stayed the course, kept working hard and doing what we do every day and knew it would turn around.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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