BALTIMORE — The first time Ryan Zimmerman homered on Wednesday night, as the thick humid air settled upon Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it was businesslike. The ball clanked off the roof of the Orioles’ bullpen and sent the few Nationals relievers already out there scattering for shelter as Zimmerman quickly rounded the bases.
The second time, Adam Jones climbed the center field wall and watched the ball dip into the grass in front of the batter’s eye.
The third time, as the ball sailed into right field and the fans came to their feet, the smiles in the dugout were wider. The high-fives were more violent. Nationals managing principal owner Ted Lerner stood and applauded from the second row behind his team’s dugout.
There was nothing left to do, it seemed, but revel in the feats of their cornerstone. Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals’ best pitcher, had a four-run lead. And then, as quickly as Zimmerman’s three homers had set off for parts unknown, the Orioles’ bats awoke. They played to the crowd, to the arrival of summer weather, to the snug dimensions of their hitter-friendly ballpark — and to the Nationals’ pitchers mistakes.
A six-run seventh sent the Nationals reeling, left to digest a 9-6 loss instead of pondering their third baseman’s power and a rollicking victory.
“It’s tough to have a night like that and not be able to celebrate it and have fun because we lost,” Zimmerman said, his clubhouse quiet. “But I’ve been swinging the bat better and it came together in one game. Hopefully we can keep swinging the bat like we have the last few days. We know our pitching is good enough. If we score that many runs we’re going to win more than we lose.”
This one, then, was against the grain.
Zimmermann entered the game having allowed only three home runs on the season. His ERA was a miniscule 1.71. His demeanor was unflappable, his pitches often unhittable. As manager Davey Johnson watched his right-hander take the mound for the seventh inning having expended only 75 pitches, he felt pretty good about his team’s chances.
“But strange things happen in this ballpark,” Johnson said.
“It’s a tough ballpark to pitch in and one little mistake… the momentum shifts real quick. I thought Zim had pretty good stuff but this ballpark can eat you alive.”
Perhaps the one little mistake for Zimmermann was a 2-1 slider to Steve Pearce. He could reconcile the two solo homers he’d given up to that point. He knew his fastball wasn’t at its best and his curveball didn’t come on until later.
But this one, dropping just to the left of the 364-foot marker from the No. 9 hitter — with the No. 8 hitter standing on first base, was tougher to swallow. In many other ballparks, it’s an out. Zimmermann thought he had one.
“I thought it was a routine flyball and then I saw (left fielder Tyler Moore) drifting and it got to the track and it kept going,” Zimmermann said. “I think some of their numbers are a little escalated because of the ballpark, but they’re a good-hitting ballclub. Got to tip your hat to them.”
But the larger mistake for the Nationals came later. Tyler Clippard entered to face left-hander Nick Markakis. That is Johnson’s move. Lefties are hitting .054 off Clippard this season. But Markakis hits right-handers at a 315 clip. Chris Davis at .381.
in a five-batter span on Wednesday night, only the two left-handers got hits off him.
Markakis singled. Two batters later, Davis hit his second home run of the night — and his fourth hit in four at-bats.
For a Nationals team that, despite the early outburst and the more palatable offense of late, still has not come back from more than a two-run deficit, the game was essentially over at that moment. They went 0-for-13 to end the game.
“The first baseman’s in heat,” Johnson said of Davis, now hitting .359 on the season with 19 home runs. “I probably should’ve put him on. But I like Clip against left-handers. He’s been outstanding all year. Just one of those things. Tough game. Tough one to take.”
“I’m trying to use his aggressiveness to my advantage,” Clippard said. “I know he doesn’t want a walk right there, and I did that the first two pitches. I felt like I expanded the zone well 0-0. At 0-2 I’m trying to get that changeup out of the zone. I just left it up. It was off the plate by a hair, but not enough and that’s on me, I just didn’t execute the pitch like I needed to.”
Clippard and Zimmermann stood at their lockers and took the heat. Clippard lamented his lack of execution, despite feeling Davis could be exploited in. Zimmermann shook his head at his rare inability to hold such a commanding lead.
In the far corner of the clubhouse, their third baseman reluctantly talked about his offensive accomplishments. Across the way, the other team was talking about him, too.
“He’s something,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “I can see why everyone you talk to who has a lot of National League experience will talk about what a great player he is.”
The way the game started, it seemed strange it could’ve ended like this.
“It did happen quick,” Zimmermann said. “I look up and we’re losing. Those guys give me six runs like that, I’ve got to do a better job. We should win this ballgame. It’s solely on me this one.”