The Washington Times - April 21, 2011, 12:43AM

ST. LOUIS — There was plenty for the Nationals to be unhappy with on Wednesday night after a long day at the ballpark produced a split of a doubleheader and left them one game over .500 with a 9-8 record.

The Nationals offense sputtered in the second game of the day-night doubleheader, they made things incredibly difficult on themselves in the first game by nearly blowing a seven-run lead and they needed their best reliever with runners on base, Tyler Clippard, to throw 29 pitches in 1 1/3 innings of work in the early game.

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That said, it’s important not to overlook the value of Jordan Zimmermann giving the Nationals six innings on a night when he clearly didn’t have his best stuff. By the same token, Collin Balester’s two innings of scoreless relief were just as important.

With the doubleheader Wednesday, the Nationals are already in a precarious pitching situation toward the end of the week where they’ll most likely be asking John Lannan, who pitched the first game on Wednesday, to throw on three days of rest against the Pirates on Sunday. They also needed five of their seven relievers to get through the final four innings of the first game leaving just Balester and Brian Broderick as the only two untouched relievers in the bullpen for Game 2. 

By needing just Zimmermann and Balester to get through the second game, and with a day game on Thursday, Riggleman was able to give a little extra recovery time to guys like Sean Burnett and Drew Storen who were both used in the first game on Wednesday but weren’t overtaxed in the way Clippard was.

– Judging by earned runs only, this was the worst outing of the season for Zimmermann. Unfortunately for the right-hander it came after one of his finest. He held the Philadelphia Phillies off the basepaths completely for the first five innings of his last start. 

Zimmermann started off with his usual efficiency and threw first-pitch strikes to each of the first seven batters he faced. But of the next seven, only three got first-pitch strikes and Zimmermann was felled by a leadoff walk to Matt Holliday in the fourth and then a two-out walk to Pujols in the fifth. Both walks ignited big innings for the Cardinals.

After the game, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman pointed to the 3-2 walk to Pujols in the fifth as the turning point in the game. The Nationals had just tied things at three in the top of the inning and Zimmermann was well on his way to putting up an important scoreless inning when he walked Pujols. Holliday, Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina each followed with singles and the Cardinals had all the runs they’d need.

Pujols hits well of Zimmermann. He was 4-for-5 against Zimmermann with a double, two homers and two RBI heading into Wednesday night’s game and the Nationals weren’t about to give him anything to hit in a tie game.

“I didn’t really want to make a mistake right there,” Zimmermann said. “I walked him and I should have bared down a little more and went after Holliday… I’m just thinking, ‘Don’t leave something over the middle (to Pujols).’ I dont want to give him a cookie 3-2 just to hit. I want to still be extra fine with the pitch and just not make a huge mistake.”

While he avoided making that huge mistake, the walk keyed the Cardinals most important rally of the night.

“I just can’t have the walks is what it boils down to,” Zimmermann said. “I had the walk and then a couple of hits and that’s when you get yourself in trouble.”

– The Nationals offense was mostly dormant in Wednesday’s nightcap but second baseman Danny Espinosa still managed an RBI-single for his 15th RBI of the season.

RBI isn’t necessarily the best stat to judge someone’s offensive production by, but the fact that Espinosa is easily leading the team isn’t something to brush off. The rookie has been hitting well since the season started and has been on a tear lately with a huge day Sunday and a 4-for-9 day on Wednesday. 

He’s raised his average to .288 this season and doesn’t seem to be showing any ill effects of taking over the role of the team’s leadoff hitter. 

– The Nationals will go for their third series victory in the last four when they send Tom Gorzelanny to the mound against right-hander Kyle Lohse for a 1:45 p.m. EDT game on Thursday.