The 14,039 fans assembling at Nationals Park would need their personal fans and a cold beverage. Game-time temperature was 99 degrees, with a negligible 1 mph “breeze.” Alas, the Nationals’ record (36-47, loser of seven of their past 10 games) was nowhere near as hot as the weather. The visiting Padres (49-33, winner of seven of their past 10 games) were leading the NL West by 3½ games, unlike the Nationals, who were last in the NL East, 12 games back of Atlanta.1 At least the starting pitchers were well matched: Clayton Richard (2.74 ERA) for the Padres and Liván Hernández (2.98 ERA) had identical 6-4 records.
Hernández struggled in the first inning but limited the Padres’ damage to one run. He started by walking Tony Gwynn Jr.2 and allowing a single to Jerry Hairston. After Adrián González lined out, Hernandez threw a wild pitch to Scott Hairston.3 The runners moved up, allowing Scott Hairston’s sacrifice fly to score Gwynn. Chase Headley struck out to end the inning with the score 1-0, Padres.
The Nationals answered in the bottom of the inning. Richard allowed a single to Nyjer Morgan, then got two fly outs. With Adam Dunn batting, Morgan stole second. He could have stayed put: Richard proceeded to walk Dunn and Josh Willingham, loading the bases. Ivan “Pudge” Rodríguez took advantage of the situation to drive in a run on an infield single, so the bases were still loaded when Michael Morse came to the plate. His grounder into center field scored two more. That was all the Nationals could manage: Ian Desmond was out on a foul pop to end the first with the score 3-1, Nationals.
With 55 pitches thrown in the first inning, it was looking like a long, hot night at the ballpark. But Hernández settled in: He managed a 1-2-3 top of the second inning on just eight pitches for three groundouts. Richard started out as efficiently: Hernández and Morgan were out on six pitches. But Cristian Guzmán singled, then Richard walked Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn to load the bases. Richard escaped the jam when Willingham flied out to center.
The Padres got one back in the top of the third. Richard opened with a single down the right-field line. Gwynn flied out, but back-to-back singles by Jerry Hairston and González scored one run. Hernández went to a full count on both Scott Hairston and Headley, but got Hairston swinging and Headley to pop out to keep the Nationals’ lead.
The Nationals threatened in the bottom of the third. After Rodríguez grounded out, Morse and Desmond singled. Hernández tried to bunt the runners over but the Padres were able to make the play at third. Morgan grounded out to end the inning, leaving the two runners on base.
Hernández had an almost 1-2-3 top of the fourth. He allowed a single to Aaron Cunningham, who was quickly caught stealing. The Nationals added to their lead in the bottom of the fourth on Zimmerman’s solo home run over the visitors’ bullpen into the left-field seats. The announcers were quick to remind everyone that Zimmerman was in the All-Star Game fan vote and that this should help his cause.4
Hernández had a little more trouble in the top of the fifth: Richard singled again, then advanced to third on groundouts by Gwynn and Jerry Hairston. The Nationals gave González (.291 BA) an intentional free pass to face Scott Hairston (.226). The strategy worked: Hairston struck out swinging to leave the score at 4-2, Nationals. In the bottom of the frame the Nationals added another run on a solo homer, this time by Desmond: 5-2, Nationals.
In the sixth, Headley opened with a single but he advanced no further. A fly out and two lineouts made for a quick inning for Hernández. After Richard collected two strikeouts, Zimmerman hit a ground-rule double. He was left on second when Dunn grounded out to end the inning.
Hernández worked a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the seventh on just seven pitches. With his pitch count already at a season-high 115 after the sixth inning, Richard was obviously finished.5 Edward Mujica replaced him in the bottom of the seventh, allowing a two-out double to Morse but nothing else.
Hernández started the eighth inning at 104 pitches. He had had several outings of 110 pitches or more in 2010. But after he gave up back-to-back singles to González and Scott Hairston, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman decided to pull him in favor of Tyler Clippard, the Nationals’ usually dependable set-up man. His ERA had been below 2 for most of the year, but after a 43-pitch outing on June 25, his performance had slipped somewhat: His ERA was now 2.65. Clippard started by allowing a single to Headley to load the bases. Yorvit Torrealba singled to left, scoring one run. Cunningham then hit a sacrifice fly, scoring the second inherited runner. Seeing that Clippard6 didn’t have it, Riggleman called on Sean Burnett to try to get out of the inning with the lead. He almost did it: Pinch-hitter Óscar Salazar grounded to second so the Nationals got the out there. But Desmond’s throw to first was off-line, so not only did they miss the double play, Headley scored the tying run. Pinch-hitter David Eckstein popped out to finally end the inning with the score tied, 5-5.
Mike Adams pitched an efficient top of the eighth: two strikeouts and a groundout. Matt Capps, the Nationals closer, held the Padres in check with the assistance of Desmond. Gwynn grounded out, then Jerry Hairston singled. González flied out for the second out. Scott Hairston doubled to left: Jerry Hairston attempted to score but was cut down at home by a throw from Willingham accurately relayed by Desmond.7
Zimmerman was the first batter to face Luke Gregerson8 in the bottom of the ninth. Zimmerman hit Gregerson’s second pitch into the cutout in center field for a walk-off victory. The Padres center fielder jumped at the wall but the ball was well out of his reach. Zimmerman gleefully circled the bases, flung away his batting helmet, and pounced on home plate, where his ecstatic teammates awaited.9
This was the third Nationals walk-off win in a row, and Zimmerman’s sixth walk-off home run in five years. Mr. Walk-Off once again sent the fans home happy.10
1 The Nationals finished the season where they had been since mid-June: in last place in their division. The Padres were unable to hold their position, though: They finished two games behind the Giants, eliminated from the postseason on the last day of the season. Had the wild card existed in 2010, they would have played on.
2 Son of “Mr. Padre” Tony Gwynn.
3 Scott is Jerry’s younger brother.
4 He didn’t make the All-Star team, but did win the Silver Slugger Award.
5 The five earned runs raised his ERA to 3.00: He never got it back below 3.00 the rest of the season.
6 Clippard’s ERA actually went down to 2.63: The two inherited runners were charged to Hernández, and the third run was unearned due to Desmond’s error.
7 “No rally this time,” Desert Sun (Palm Springs, California), July 7, 2010: 22.
8 Gregerson’s career was just getting started. His stellar years as set-up man and closer for the Padres, A’s, and Astros were ahead.
9 Scott Allen, “Ryan Zimmerman’s 11 career walk-off home runs, ranked,” Washington Post, August 23, 2018, washingtonpost.com/news/dc-sports-bog/wp/2018/08/23/ryan-zimmermans-11-career-walk-off-home-runs-ranked/?utm_term=.5ae0507e3e3a. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
10 Dan Steinberg, “How Ryan Zimmerman got his ‘Mr. Walk-Off’ nickname,” Washington Post, May 20, 2015, washingtonpost.com/news/dc-sports-bog/wp/2015/05/20/how-ryan-zimmerman-got-his-mr-walk-off-nickname/?utm_term=.78f07238fd13. Retrieved January 7, 2019.