For nearly a month now, the Washington Nationals' lineup has been terrorizing opposing pitchers, combining power and speed, patience and depth to help the club resurrect what had been a free fall of a season.
On Tuesday night, that potent offense finally met its match in the form of a 25-year-old flamethrower who should be a household name but barely registers on the national stage.
Colorado Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, owner of a 99 mph fastball and the stamina of a pack mule, dazzled the Nationals for eight innings, leading his club to a 4-3 victory that left everyone in the Washington clubhouse offering praise.
"He's got a great arm. I'll tell you, I don't know if we've seen anything like that all year," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "There's been a couple of great pitching performances against us... but as far as the quality of stuff that has been thrown up against us, nobody has thrown like that kid there did today."
The Nationals, it should be noted, have faced the likes of Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Johan Santana and CC Sabathia this season. Yet none of those heralded aces made the kind of impression Jimenez did in allowing two runs over eight sterling innings.
Adam Dunn called Jimenez's fastball "probably the best in the game," and he would know, having struck out three times Tuesday on heaters that clocked as high as 99 mph. That velocity was still there in the eighth inning as Jimenez (11-9) preserved a one-run lead to put himself in position for the win.
"He's really good," Dunn said. "And not a lot of people talk about him."
Not a lot of pitchers, no matter their pedigree, have managed to stifle Washington's lineup the last month. That unit has averaged six runs and 1.3 homers a game since July 25, a key factor in the club's resurgence under Riggleman.
But there was no such production Tuesday against the Rockies, putting added pressure on rookie starter Craig Stammen to keep his club in the game. Stammen did that, allowing just two runs over 5 1/3 innings. But the right-hander faltered in the sixth, allowing three straight men to reach base, so his night came to a surprisingly quick conclusion.
Though he has enjoyed some success since joining the big league rotation in May, Stammen has struggled to pitch deep into games. That's still an area that needs improvement.
"Getting through the sixth inning is something I need to get done," he said. "I'm really disappointed about that."
That said, the Nationals still found themselves in a 2-2 ballgame in the eighth inning with every opportunity to extend their home winning streak to nine games. But relievers Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard couldn't keep the score intact. Each allowed a solo homers - Burnett to Carlos Gonzalez in the eighth, Clippard to Clint Barmes in the ninth - turning a tie game into a 4-2 deficit.
"Just hung a breaking ball," Burnett said of his first pitch to Gonzalez, a former winter ball teammate in Venezuela. "I came in and I figured I could get a first-pitch strike. I knew he was going to be aggressive. ... He smoked it."
Washington did mount a rally in the ninth against Rockies closer Huston Street, getting back-to-back two-out hits from Nyjer Morgan and Cristian Guzman and bringing Ryan Zimmerman to the plate with the tying run on third. But the man who has produced so many game-winning thrills over the past four years didn't have one in him this time.
Zimmerman lined out to left field, and thus the Nationals lost a home game for the first time since July 24, an impressive run of success for a team that has enjoyed a significant resurrection in the past month.
Not long ago, Washington was 40 games under the .500 mark, seemingly destined to lose 110-plus times this season and select No. 1 overall again in next summer's draft. Not anymore. Even with Tuesday's loss, this outfit has gone 17-15 under Riggleman, has drawn within four games of the Kansas City Royals and needs only to go 20-23 the rest of the way to avoid 100 losses.
"That's one thing this team has: Every day we're going to play hard," Dunn said. "I don't think it matters if we're playing the Bad News Bears or we're playing these guys who are in the playoff race. I think we play the same."