“I think Davey knows how hard it is to go up there and pinch hit,” Tracy said. “We’re veteran guys. We’re going to give you a good at-bat. We’re not going to be overwhelmed by anybody, or the nerves are not going to get to us.”
The infield moved in, and Tracy did not focus on any particular pitch. He just wanted to barrel the ball, hit it hard enough to get through the infield. Against Richard, Tracy took one ball, then smacked a hard groundball up the middle. Once it got past Richard, Tracy knew it would scoot into the outfield. Both Nady and Ramos raced home, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
A two-run lead over the Padres at Petco Park typically ensures victory, but the Nationals forced themselves to clear one more hurdle. Craig Stammen relieved Gonzalez and, following several scintillating appearances, had nothing. He yielded a walk and a single, then exited so Clippard could clean up the mess.
Clippard could be the Nationals’ closer with Drew Storen recovering from surgery, but Johnson wanted him available for moments like this: two on, no outs and the winning run at the plate in the form of a powerful young hitter. Yonder Alonso took two vicious hacks, and Clippard struck him out with a high fastball.
But Jason Bartlett followed with a bloop single to center. Both runners moved up a base before Jayson Werth bobbled the ball trying to pick it up. The error let Cameron Maybin score and moved Orlando Hudson to third.
For the final two outs, Clippard engaged in an epic struggle. With men on second and third, Mark Kotsay fouled off nine pitches and took two balls. “Put it in play,” Clippard thought to himself before Kotsay popped up the 12th pitch Clippard threw him, an 81-mph changeup, to shortstop.
Clippard still needed to retire Chris Denorfia. He took Clippard to a 3-2 count before chopping a changeup to third base, where Zimmerman fill-in Lombardozzi made a nifty, running play to end the inning. Clippard, having thrown 26 pitches to four batters, pumped his fist.
Sunday’s rainout made Gonzalez wait six days between starts, enough time to throw off a pitcher’s carefully calibrated routine. In 13 previous career starts after at least six days of rest, Gonzalez was 5-6 with a 6.29 ERA.
After a six-pitch first inning, some rust may have shown. Gonzalez stomped off the mound after the second inning, yelling at himself and smacking his glove. He hadn’t allowed a run; he had merely walked two batters.
Gonzalez settled from there. Chris Denorfia hit a groundball single up the middle in the third, and Will Venable bunted his way on in the sixth. Otherwise, Gonzalez would have challenged a no-hitter. He pumped 94-mph fastballs at the knees, striking out six while letting only three balls escape the infield. With his 91st and final pitch, Gonzalez struck out Chase Headley swinging at a 93-mph fastball.
“I was just going out there trying to pound the strike zone, and not worry about what was going on after that,” Gonzalez said. “It’s definitely a credit to the catchers and my defense.”
Their first brutal reminder of life without Zimmerman came in the very first inning. Ian Desmond led off by reaching on an error, and Danny Espinosa walked. The Nationals had every ingredient for a rally, except walking to the plate in Zimmerman’s place was DeRosa, a 37-year-old veteran who was 3 for 30 on the season.
Not long before Zimmermann slid into the MRI tube, DeRosa hit an easy groundball to short, and Bartlett started a 6-4-3 double play. Werth then smoked a line drive to right field, but it found Venable’s glove, and the rallied died with a zero on the board.
The zeros kept piling up, even after Adam LaRoche led off the fifth with a double. They may not have much offense, and Zimmerman’s impending diagnosis only threatened to enhance that worry. But, with their rotation, the Nationals always have hope.