Soriano’s blast buries Nats

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Jordan Zimmermann should get plenty more opportunities to face Alfonso Soriano in the future, because Zimmermann figures to be a member of the Washington Nationals’ rotation for years to come and Soriano remains property of the Chicago Cubs through 2014.

And chances are, Zimmermann will get the best of Soriano often because good pitching beats good hitting. Sure enough, Washington’s rookie right-hander struck out Chicago’s slugger twice in their first two encounters Saturday.

But with the game on the line in the sixth inning, Soriano got the best of Zimmermann. And because of it, the Cubs celebrated a 6-5 victory, while Zimmermann tried to grasp how he lost after pitching so well.

Soriano’s three-run home run proved the difference between the Nationals’ first victory of the second half and Jim Riggleman’s third consecutive loss since taking over as interim manager. In this case, the new skipper saw his team jump out to a 4-0 lead only to shut down offensively and then watch as Soriano’s blast spoiled Zimmermann’s otherwise splendid performance was spoiled by Soriano’s blast.

Washington (26-64) stormed out of the gates to score twice in the first and twice more in the second off Cubs starter Randy Wells. But after amassing six hits during those rallies, the Nationals managed only three singles and a double the rest of the way while squandering a couple of late, golden opportunities in exasperating fashion.

They loaded the bases with one out in both the seventh and eighth innings, each time bringing the bipartisan crowd to its feet. Yet they brought just one of those six baserunners home, on Ryan Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly in the eighth.

For all the late drama, Saturday’s game hinged on the sixth-inning confrontation between Zimmermann and Soriano. It seemed appropriate the two would take center stage for such an event, because their careers are forever linked.

When the Nationals chose to let Soriano walk as a free agent after the 2006 season, they did so knowing they would be compensated with two draft picks. The first of those picks turned into left-hander Josh Smoker, who is battling back from shoulder surgery. The second of those picks, though, turned into Zimmermann, a little-known college pitcher from Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Soriano has yet to live up to his eight-year, $136 million contract. Zimmermann has blossomed into Washington’s top pitching prospect and a potential cornerstone for years to come.

And for five innings Saturday night, the 23-year-old played the part, blowing away Chicago’s hitters with a mid-90s fastball and pumping pitches through the strike zone at a 74 percent rate.

But that all came to a head during the fateful sixth, which began with a Derrek Lee double and was compounded with an error on second baseman Willie Harris on what should have been a routine groundout.

Needing to come up big to get out of the jam, Zimmermann blew three pitches past slumping right fielder Milton Bradley and breathed a sigh of relief. Then the entire game turned on one pitch: a first-pitch slider to Soriano that wound up clearing the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center.

Just like that, the Cubs had a 5-4 lead, not to mention the full-throated support of a crowd of 36,014 that didn’t sound all that different from Wrigley Field on a Tuesday afternoon.

Zimmermann bent over and put his hands on his knees, a show of dejection at his one costly mistake in an otherwise strong performance.

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