Ryan Zimmerman’s smiling visage appeared on the giant high-definition scoreboard at Nationals Park on Tuesday night. As the fans sweltered in the early July heat, Zimmerman asked for their vote in a pre-taped segment as he tries to earn the last spot on the Nationals League’s All-Star roster.
It’s an unlikely quest with Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto garnering support from all across the country in Major League Baseball’s Final Vote contest. But Zimmerman’s Washington-style lobbying effort wasn’t just on the scoreboard. He performed on the field, too, during a dramatic 6-5 victory over the San Diego Padres with a 3-for-4 night that included a double, a walk and two home runs – the second a game-ending bomb in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Strasburg speaksNats rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg spoke before Tuesday’s game against San Diego about not being selected for next week’s All-Star game. Of course, as good as he’s been it was a longshot candidacy anyway because the 21-year-old has made just six big-league starts.“I really didn’t feel like I was qualified to make the team, No. 1, based on how much experience I have,” Strasburg said. “I’m sure I’ll have opportunities somewhere down the road. But right now, it was never a goal of mine.”
Since being named one of five finalists for the last National League spot on Sunday morning, Zimmerman is 6-for-9 with six RBI and three runs scored. So the Nats’ third baseman is doing his part to become an All-Star for the second year in a row. But it may not matter since Votto – with a league-best 1.017 OPS entering play Tuesday - was such an obvious snub. Only one of five candidates each from the American and National Leagues will go to Anaheim for the 81st All-Star game next week. Zimmerman crushed an 0-1 pitch from San Diego reliever Luke Gregerson over the center-field wall to end it. It was the sixth time in his career he has hit a walk-off home run.
“Oh yeah – I was just waiting for it to be announced so I could get hot,” a sarcastic Zimmerman cracked. “No. I’ve been working hard the last week or so. I’ve been struggling for the last three weeks, four weeks, however many weeks it is and it’s frustrating. Nobody wants to do that. But I’ve been working with [hitting coach] Rick [Eckstein] a little bit and it’s finally kind of getting back to where I want to be.”
Zimmerman was far from the only star on Tuesday night. A game that began with the temperature at 99 degrees – the warmest since baseball returned to the District in 2005 – was no problem for Nats starter Livan Hernandez, a native of Cuba. He gave up just two runs through seven innings and was looking at another strong performance - at least until the Padres managed a pair of singles to start the eighth. Hernandez departed after 111 pitches, but reliever Tyler Clippard allowed both runners to score and gave up one of his own to blow a 5-2 lead.
“That one would have been on me if we lost it,” said Nats manager Jim Riggleman, who regretted leaving Hernandez in to start the eighth.
A key play that inning was a potential double-play grounder hit towards second base. Cristian Guzman’s toss left something to be desired. But shortstop Ian Desmond tried to make a play anyway – and instead whipped the ball past first baseman Adam Dunn. It was Desmond’s major-league leading 21st error as the tying run scored.
But the 24-year-old is nothing if not resilient. He’s had to be in his first full season in the majors. Desmond blasted a home run off Padres starter Clayton Richard in the fifth to push Washington’s lead to 5-2. In the ninth he more than made up for the error. A double by Scott Hairston into the left-field corner looked like it would score his brother, Jerry Hairston, from first base with the go-ahead run. But Josh Willingham dug out the ball quickly and Desmond’s relay throw home was a bullet one-hopper. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez made the tag in plenty of time for the final out to keep the game tied.
“That’s just me I guess. I hate to say it – but I’m aggressive,” Desmond said. “It’s really hard for me to say ‘No, don’t make the play.’ I guess that’s just in my blood and it’s something I’m just going to have to learn up here to make better decisions.”
It was the second biggest play of the night. Zimmerman led off the ninth and got a fastball on the outer half of the plate. He launched it over the wall in center for the Nats’ second walk-off hit in three games. It was Zimmerman’s second multi-homer game of the season – and second against San Diego.
“We all know [Zimmerman] is an All-Star,” said Nats outfielder Michael Morse , who himself had a 3-for-4 night with a double and two RBI. “He’s playing like an All-Star. He’s always played like an All-Star. We all just are hoping that he gets in.”