SAN DIEGO — As the Washington Nationals gathered before Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, they discussed their plan against left-hander Eric Stults. They knew what they’d get out of their guy. With Jordan Zimmermann, things rarely differ from the script. But they wanted to be patient against Stults.
With a fastball that rarely breaks 90-mph, Stults, a 33-year-old journeyman, relies on his offspeed stuff. The Nationals plan was to force him to throw the fastball, and not to bite on what manager Davey Johnson later referred to as “junk.”
“We’re not hitting very smart,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “We’re swinging at his changeups around the knees or in the dirt. We’re not making him throw the ball over. It’s a sign of some inexperienced hitters at times. You’ve got to be more patient than that against a guy like this.
“We knew he didn’t have a very good fastball, but you don’t look for the junk because he’s going to throw the junk out of the zone. Don’t be chasing it. Make him throw it over. Make him get it up. All night long we were swinging. We’ll learn, hopefully.”
On a day they again demanded near perfection out of Zimmermann, he came very close with his pitching. Tossing eight innings on just 85 pitches, Zimmermann required the fewest pitches in a non-rain-shortened complete game in Nationals history.
But without any margin for error, a pickoff throw he yanked just wide of first baseman Adam LaRoche in the eighth stuck with him.
“I just made two mistakes,” the usually-stoic Zimmermann said after the game, noting his first was a second-inning solo home run by Yonder Alonso.
“The home run to Alonso, it was a good pitch, but it was up. You can’t really complain about that. But the throwing error by me down the line is what cost us. If I don’t make that we’re still out there playing.”
In literal terms, the Nationals’ ace right-hander may have been right. It was a tightly-contested game that sped by in just two hours and one minute. And yes, technically, the game was lost when Zimmermann’s throw went wide of LaRoche and the man at the plate, Everth Cabrera, smacked an RBI-single to center shortly thereafter.
But it wasn’t his errant throw that helped Stults take a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Or his dumb luck that Denard Span’s bouncer up the middle with two men on the second hit off Stults’ foot and kicked right to first base for an easy play, and then an easy double play when Zimmermann and Kurt Suzuki got caught rounding third.
And it wasn’t his fault that, even though they won Friday night, Nationals not named Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche are 5-for-42 in the past two games. Zimmermann had one of the Nationals’ four hits on the day.
“Nobody wants to lose games like this, but it happens,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out in the ninth inning on what he called a “run-and-hit” with Steve Lombardozzi running on the pitch and getting caught stealing as Zimmerman swung through for strike three.
“Sometimes the other team’s pitcher is going to kind of get you. And he did today. I feel bad for Jordan. I wish we could’ve scored some runs for him. He threw great.”
While Zimmermann was his usual self — “a bulldog” as Padres manager Bud Black called him, he was through seven innings on just 73 pitches as the Padres’ aggressiveness played right into his hands — the Nationals defense behind him was equally as impressive.
Their routine plays were crisp, but it was the non-routine ones, like Ian Desmond’s heady decision in the seventh inning and Suzuki’s bold one to get the lead runner on a bunt in the eighth, that kept the Nationals close.
The Padres began to mount their first significant threat of the evening in the seventh when Zimmermann hit Chase Headley in the leg with a pitch. Alonso followed with a single, but Zimmermann didn’t flinch. He induced two quick fly outs and as Chris Denorfia’s infield single bounded toward the hole at short, Desmond ranged to his right and smothered it.
Knowing he had no play at first or second, Desmond made the smart decision to throw to third, where Zimmerman was waiting. A brilliantly instinctual play by both fielders. Headley rounded the bag too far, and the Nationals caught him in a rundown for an emphatic third out.
It just couldn’t help them in the eighth.
“It’s tough,” LaRoche said. “I don’t know, looking back, if he would’ve scored or not if we didn’t throw the ball away. But to hand them a run, and the winning run, it’s never easy. Especially when he’s throwing so well and we weren’t hitting.”
Johnson called it “a waste” that the Nationals couldn’t win with Zimmermann on the mound, and he chastised his hitters for their failings on a day when they could’ve clinched a series victory.
“We’re just not doing the things we’re capable of doing offensively,” Johnson said. “That’s a tough loss.”