Jordan Zimmermann and Matt Williams are many things, but sentimental men they most certainly are not. Both the Nationals right-hander and his manager care too much about the competition at hand to get caught up in emotions. So the fact neither made much of the manner in which Zimmermann departed Friday night’s 8-2 loss to the Phillies should come as no surprise.
That may not provide much solace to the crowd of 31,019 that gathered on South Capitol Street, first and foremost to watch their club try to win a ballgame but equally to offer thanks to the franchise’s most-successful pitcher during its decade-plus in the District on what likely was his final home start. But it’s the cold, hard truth.
When he sent Wilmer Difo to the plate to pinch-hit for Zimmermann in the bottom of the fifth in what at that point was a 6-1 game, Williams wasn’t concerned about manufacturing a sentimental exit for his right-hander.
“No,” he said. “We’ve got to try to get back in the game.”
Nor was Zimmermann upset that his manager didn’t give him an opportunity to walk off the mound to a standing ovation.
“I would’ve pulled me there, too,” he said. “I was giving up quite a few hits. I wasn’t really thinking about going out the next inning and walking off the mound or anything. It would’ve been nice, but at the end of the day, you have to pitch well if you want to get those things at the end of the game.”
Not that Zimmermann didn’t understand the situation. He knew he was making his final home start of the year, with free agency looming in a few weeks. He knew the likelihood of he and the Nationals striking a deal that would keep him here for many more years had dissipated long ago.
And he knew why many in the crowd that arrived before first pitch were standing and applauding as he made his way in from the right-field bullpen, not the kind of reception he typically gets.
“I heard it, for sure,” he said. “It was awesome. It means a lot to me. I just wish I could’ve given them something a little better tonight.”
Therein lies the real problem. Had Zimmermann simply pitched the way he has throughout the vast majority of his career, a situation suitable for a standing ovation might well have presented itself.
Instead, Williams was left to pull his starter after five ragged innings that featured three home runs, two of the conventional variety and one that occurred in a highly unconventional fashion.
With the bases loaded and one out in the top of the third, Phillies rookie Aaron Altherr sent a sinking line drive to shallow center field. Michael Taylor came charging in and attempted to make a backhanded, sliding catch.
How close did Taylor come to making the play? “It hit off the bottom of my glove,” he said.
Close wasn’t good enough. And when the ball continued past Taylor and kept rolling until it nearly reached the warning track, four Phillies players came roaring around the bases to score, with Altherr bringing up the rear as the owner of MLB’s first inside-the-park grand slam in 16 years.
“I felt like I had a good bead on the ball,” Taylor said. “I thought I had a chance on it. I know in that situation, you better catch the ball, and I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t think I could. It’s still a bad play once I miss it, so, it’s a tough play. … That was a big play for us, and I felt like I let down the team and let down Jordan right there. It’s not a good play.”
“I mean, it wasn’t an easy play, by any stretch,” Zimmermann said. “I know he’s giving it all. That’s just the way it happens.”
Had Taylor made the catch, or had he pulled up and played the ball on a hop, the storyline to this game might have changed. Then again, Zimmermann inflicted plenty of damage to himself. He served up two more homers in the top of the fifth, with Altherr and Darin Ruf connecting for solo shots to blow the game open.
He walked off the mound at the end of that inning, his pitch count a mere 79 but his spot in the lineup due to arrive second, with his team now down 5 runs. Williams didn’t have to think twice about sending up a pinch-hitter. Zimmermann didn’t have to think twice about the decision. The crowd didn’t have a chance to formally say goodbye to the pitcher who has won more games, made more starts and struck out more batters than any other in club history.
It was an unfortunate way for an otherwise splendid, 7-year marriage to end.
“I feel like I took the ball every time they asked and did what I could,” Zimmermann said of his career in Washington. “Some days I didn’t have it. Some days I was good. I’m not saying this is my last start. You don’t know what’s going to happen this offseason. We’ll see what happens.”