WASHINGTON — Ryan Zimmerman was in the dirt, face down. His manager and trainer were on their way to him at a trot. The people at Nationals Park were angry, except maybe for that right-field section highest and farthest from home plate, a drop of orange in a cranberry bog.
In the first World Series game in this ballpark, the first in this town in 86 years, Zimmerman, the original Nat, was late on Friday night cheek-deep in batter’s box dust, the result of a 98-mph fastball that had he lost sight of but certainly heard.
The catcher, a cheery Venezuelan named Robinson Chirinos, looked over to Zimmerman and said, “You all right?” Zimmerman did not move, did not look up, merely said, “Man, that was a close one.”
The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals were, it turned out, three pitches into the eight-pitch at-bat that might have, could have, probably did, decide Game 3. They had arrived in the second half of the fifth inning, the Astros ahead by two runs, the Nationals ahead by two games. The Nationals had runners at second and third bases.
Zimmerman already had singled and walked in two plate appearances. Josh James, the 26-year-old reliever in his first full big-league season, had replaced Zack Greinke those three pitches earlier. The ballpark stirred, sensing the Astros were in trouble, this being the general reaction by Nationals fans and anything to do with bullpens. Also, a three-games-to-none lead with the next two games scheduled for this corner would likely have had the mayor drawing parade routes. So this was it, their guy Zim taking the first two pitches from James, both of them strikes, then getting a hissing fastball that missed his chin by a baby shark’s breath. He twisted and flung himself away, landed in the dirt and just figured he’d stay there a bit, count his limbs, think about the good days and happier times.
“That one just got away,” James said.
The Astros needed a baseball game, all things considered. They needed to invite people into a baseball park, any baseball park, any town, didn’t matter which, turn on the lights and play a baseball game.
They’d had themselves quite a disaster, far as weeks go, what with the subpar baseball and the — let’s call it — other stuff, stuff that did not reflect on their baseball exactly, but that certainly soiled everything above and around the baseball. They’d won the American League pennant and then proceeded to throw up all over themselves for the next six days, and wore that around for a while.
So, yeah, some actual baseball. Maybe even some good baseball, were they able to get back to their usual game.
Beyond that, the Astros needed to win a baseball game, win the little moments in the shadowy corners that once got them to 107 wins and all the way to a World Series they’d be favored to win, if not for, you know, that week. The week in which they played uneven, even occasionally terrible, baseball. The week that was so terrible in other ways maybe some folks didn’t even notice.
“We’re too talented,” their shortstop, Carlos Correa, said. “We’ve come too far.”
They got on a plane for D.C. They took a breath. They gave the baseball to Zack Greinke, who on Friday night was given to long, soulful walks of self-evaluation. Who did not walk to the top of the mound between pitches, but scaled its southern face. He worked slowly and walked slower and lasted for 95 pitches and 14 outs, at which point the Astros led, 3-1, and James headed in from left field with the potential tying runs in scoring position and everyone’s hero at the plate. He came with a fastball, a slider and a changeup, maybe none any better than the rest, all of them quite capable.
Not, at 35, the offensive threat he once was, Zimmerman nevertheless had four hits in 10 at-bats in the series until then, and had hit a respectable .290 in the nine postseason games leading to the World Series. So, a likely unintentional fastball had flattened Zimmerman, and while he waved away his manager and trainer, even mustering a grin as he did, and dusted off his uniform, Chirinos and James came to agreement on their next pitch, the one-ball, two-strike pitch, all the while considering the potentially altered temperament of the guy who’d just been buzzed.
“Some guys get angry,” James said. “Some guys get a little more aggressive.”
Not Zimmerman, it didn’t seem to James.
“I didn’t think he was upset at all,” he said. “Maybe he was a little startled.”
Chirinos, then, got to thinking about what a veteran such as Zimmerman would be thinking about what Chirinos would be thinking.
“Me, personally, I get one high and close, I’m kind of afraid to dive at the plate,” he said. “You kinda get scared.”
It would not be the obvious pitch.
“I thought he was going to look for a slider, down and away,” Chirinos said.
They threw a fastball, also over the strike zone. Zimmerman took it. Then he fouled a slider, the fifth pitch, the one he might have assumed was coming on the fourth pitch. The sixth pitch was also a fastball, which Zimmerman fouled, and was of enough interest to send Chirinos to the mound, where he was joined by shortstop Carlos Correa and pitching coach Brent Strom. The conversation was conducted with Chirinos’ right arm looped around James’ neck.
“Whatever he put down, I was going to throw,” James said, a strategy that lasted a single pitch, a changeup out of the strike zone Zimmerman took to push the count full.
Chirinos then asked for another changeup. James shook him toward the slider.
“I didn’t think it was the right pitch,” Chirinos said.
So he insisted. Changeup.
Since Game 2, even in the moments after Game 2, a 12-3 loss that had turned humiliating in the late innings, the Astros had reminded each other who they are. What they are made of. How they are built. There was more baseball to play, plenty of it. Somehow they’d get the ball back to Gerrit Cole, who’d get it to Justin Verlander, but first they’d have to win, starting with Greinke, then across a bullpen game after that. For his part, Chirinos had studied six hours of film before the series began, then another few hours before Game 3, then guided Greinke through his 14 outs, some of those while worried Greinke was tipping his curveball, seeing as how the Nationals were hitting it with such ease.
This is how a catcher arrives not at the slider, but at the changeup, in the very moment the only game they could win on this night teetered. This is why he insists.
“I knew if I got it relatively in the zone, around the zone, I could get him to swing,” James said, much more confident in the pitch postgame. “Chinny called a great pitch.”
When they met in the dugout, Chirinos asked James about the slider and James said, “I trust you. I knew when you put it down the second time it was the right pitch.”
Zimmerman missed it. The Astros would win, 4-1. The series would survive at least another couple days. For a change, somebody else ended up in the dirt.
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