WASHINGTON (AP) — As the ball soared toward deep left-center, seemingly destined to end Jordan Zimmermann's bid for the first no-hitter by a Washington Nationals pitcher, the righty threw his head back and thought, "Double. No-doubt double."
Zimmermann was one out from history Sunday, and for what must have seemed like forever he watched little-used rookie left fielder Steven Souza Jr. — a defensive replacement in the ninth inning — give chase.
"Once I got closer," Souza said, "I knew, 'Oh, my gosh, this is going to be pretty close.' So I took off."
Souza sprinted, extended his glove and leaped for a sensational overhead grab, using his bare hand to squeeze the ball in his black mitt as he tumbled to the grass. That grab preserved Zimmermann's gem and ended Washington's 1-0 victory over the Miami Marlins on the last day of the regular season.
"The one thing on my mind is, no matter how I'm going to get there, I'm going to get there," Souza said. "Getting there, I kind of blacked out."
He held his glove aloft to show he had the ball. Zimmermann raised both arms. Nationals relievers in the home bullpen lifted their arms, too. So did thousands in the Nationals Park crowd of 35,085, who roared with every pitch down the stretch.
Miami's Mike Dunn said he and other relievers in the left-field visitors' bullpen started cheering as the ball headed their way, certain the no-no was no more.
"When he caught it," Dunn said, "it was just like, 'Really? Did that just happen?'"
Souza's name now belongs alongside those of other players delivering superb catches to save no-hitters. The one that kept coming up in the Nationals' clubhouse was Dewayne Wise's juggling grab in the ninth that saved Mark Buehrle's perfect game for the White Sox in 2009.
"I thought there was no way this would ever happen. My career numbers are something like one hit per inning, so I figure if I can make it out of the first, the hit's coming in the second," said the 28-year-old Zimmermann, a quiet guy who was a second-round draft pick in 2007 out of Division III University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "But today was one of those special days."
Quite a way to cap a regular season in which the Nationals finished with the NL's best record, 96-66. Washington hosts San Francisco or Pittsburgh in Game 1 of a division series Friday.
"Just an epic day for an epic season," said Denard Span, who set a Nationals single-season record with his 184th hit.
Zimmermann (14-5) threw 104 pitches, had 10 strikeouts and allowed only two baserunners. After retiring the first 14 batters, he walked Justin Bourn on a low, full-count fastball with two outs in the fifth. In the seventh, Garrett Jones reached first base on a strike-three wild pitch; moments later, catcher Wilson Ramos picked him off.
Starting on seven days' rest because his pitching shoulder got bruised by a line drive his last time out, Zimmermann poured in fastballs in the mid-90s mph, used his mid-80s slider to great effect and had his changeup fooling a Marlins lineup without NL home-run champion Giancarlo Stanton.
Zimmermann didn't need a whole lot of defensive help until Souza's memorable play. That might have been a good thing, because Nationals manager Matt Williams pulled his starters as the game went on, making for a series of standing ovations as they left, one by one. It also made for an ever-shifting defensive alignment.
Until leadoff hitter Christian Yelich turned on a 94 mph fastball on a 2-1 count with two outs in the ninth, the closest the Marlins came to hits were three liners in the fifth grabbed by backup infielders — Tyler Moore at first, Kevin Frandsen at third, and Danny Espinosa at shortstop.
"Three rockets, and right at guys," said Zimmermann, who had shaving cream in both ears from the on-field celebration. "That's when I knew there might be something special happening."
Frandsen wasn't so sure, saying: "Fifth inning's a little early to think, 'He's got a no-hitter.'"
Maybe. But all it took was three innings for pitching coach Steve McCatty to pull Williams aside and point out that their initial plan to let Zimmermann have a light day's work with an eye to the postseason might not hold up.
"I said, 'What do we do if we're going to give him six (innings) and he doesn't (allow) a hit?'" McCatty recounted. "He just looked at me and said, 'That's not funny.' I said, 'Well, there's a good chance that's going to happen.'"
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