April 4, 2020:
When Ryan Zimmerman won the first game at Nationals Park with a walk-off home run in 2008, it was the fourth time Zim had hit a game-ending homer. His total now stands at 11, the last coming on August 22, 2018, against the Phillies.
The 11 game-ending home runs tie Zimmerman for eighth place in that category with Hall-of-Famer Tony Perez and future inductee David Ortiz. Jim Thome holds the record for walk-off dingers with 13. Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson all had 12. Another future Hall of Famer, the still active Albert Pujols, also has 12. Everyone aside from Zim on this illustrious list has at least 379 home runs and played longer than he has. Although his 270 homers are a franchise record, Zimmerman’s relatively meager total compared with these greats does give him the highest percentage of walk-off blasts.
Walk-off hits by any of the Nationals are especially joyous because by definition they happen before raucous home fans in the team’s last at-bat. Often, they cap a comeback, although as with Zim’s Nationals Park opener blast, the game could be tied when a walk-off hit wins it.
Surprisingly (at least to me), the adjective “walk-off” — most often followed by “home run” even though it is just as apt for any game-ending hit – is believed to have been used for the first time in July 1988. (Zim actually has five other walk-off hits that weren’t homers, and a game-ending bases loaded walk — four of those came in the 9th inning and two in the 11th.)
Zimmerman actually has ended several other games in walk-off fashion, without homering. A run-scoring single on July 6, 2006, and a base-loaded walk on September 2, 2006, both in extra-innings, were his first non-homer walk offs. He beat the Mets on July 1, 2010, with a bottom-of-the-ninth sacrifice fly. He won three other games (September 2, 2007, July 1, 2010, and July 3, 2011) with what were scored as singles, although had the winning run not scored, one or more of the hits might have gone for doubles.
A trick question: How many “walk-off homers” did Ruth or Mantle really hit? Strict answer: None, because the phrase hadn’t been used when they played. So it goes for the others on list who retired before 1988.
The man credited with coining the now-common term for a game-ender was the Hall-of-Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who told a Gannett News Service reporter that a “walk-off” is a homer that wins the game, so that the losing pitcher just walks off the mound. This would have been after the July 29, 1988, game in which Eck gave up a three-run “walk- off” homer to Steve Balboni of the Seattle Mariners in the 12th inning. Eckersley had come on to try to protect a 3-2 lead.
It wouldn’t be the last time this elite closer surrendered a game-ending blast. The walk-off homer he gave up to the nearly-crippled Kirk Gibson in Game One of the 1988 World Series is among the most famous in baseball history.
Here’s a brief recap of Ryan Zimmerman’s 11 walk-off homers, all of which have been written about at length for SABR’s Games Project:
- June 18, 2006, vs. the New York Yankees: His first walk-off came on Father’s Day with his dad in the stands. With one out and Marlon Anderson on first, the Nats trailed, 2-1. Ryan hit Chien-Ming Wang’s first pitch over the left-field wall for a 3-2 victory. (A Games Project essay by Laura H. Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- July 4, 2006, vs. the Florida Marlins: Sixteen days later, with two on, two outs and the Marlins up 4-3, Zimmerman hit a 2-2 pitch from Joe Borowski over the left-field fence. (A Games Project essay by Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- May 12, 2007, vs. the Florida Marlins: A game, which began the night before, ended early on Mother’s Day after a couple of rain delays lasted four hours. Just a few hundred fans were around to see Zim win it with a two-out, two-strike, grand-slam off Jorge Julio that capped a five-run rally and gave the Nats a 7-3 victory. So far, one for mom, one for dad and one for our country. (A Games Project essay by Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- March 30, 2008, vs. the Atlanta Braves: President George W. Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch before the season’s opening game. Zimmerman hit a two-out, line-drive, homer off Peter Moylan to break a 2-2 tie. The Nats had allowed the Braves to tie it in the top of the ninth. (My Games Project essay is here and on SABR.org)
- Sept. 6, 2009, vs. the Florida Marlins: After the Nationals had scored two in the eighth to tie it, the Marlins scored twice in the ninth to go ahead 4-2. With a runner on first, Zim came up with nobody out and the Nats still down a run. The team was looking at a ninth straight loss before his homer to deep center off Juan Carlos Oviedo gave the Nats a 5-4 win., one of just 59 in that low-point season. (A Games Project essay by Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- July 6, 2010, vs. the San Diego Padres: After the Padres had rallied with three in the eighth, Zim broke a 5-5 tie with his lead-off blast to center field on the second pitch by Luke Gregerson. (A Games Project essay by Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- July 31, 2010, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies: His second walk-off homer of the month came off a slumping Brad Lidge. The Phils had taken a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth. With two on and one out, Zim hit Lidge’s 2-1 pitch to deep center for a 7-5 Nats’ win. (A Games Project essay by Peebles appears on SABR.org)
- Aug. 19, 2011, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies: With two outs, the bases loaded and the game tied, 4-4, Zimmerman hit a 3-2 pitch down the left field line for a grand slam off Ryan Madson. The Phillies had a 4-2 lead before the Nationals scored six runs in that ninth inning. (A Games Project essay by Steven C. Weiner appears on SABR.org)
- July 26, 2013, vs. the New York Mets: The Nationals managed to split a double-header thanks to Zimmerman’s solo homer with one out off LaTroy Hawkins. The blast gave the Nats a 2-1 victory. (A Games Project essay by Pebbles appears on SABR.org)
- May 19, 2015, vs. the New York Yankees: Down 6-2 early, Ryan capped the Nats’ comeback with a 10th-inning, two-out, two-run, dinger of Andrew Miller that hit the right-field foul pole. (A Games Project essay by Weiner appears at SABR.org.)
- Aug. 22, 2018, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies: Zim’s two-run home run off Seranthony Dominguez lifted Washington to an 8-7 win. The hit was initially ruled a game-tying double. Juan Soto scored from second base on the play, but thinking it was a homer, he ran toward Zimmerman to celebrate. If Soto had touched Zim before it was ruled a home run and Zimmerman had stepped on home plate, Ryan would have been called out. (A Games Project essay by Weiner appears at SABR.org.)