As the evening wore on and the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles posted zero after zero on the giant scoreboard in right field, it became more and more obvious that something out of the ordinary would need to happen for this game to be decided.
How about Danys Baez stepping to the plate for the first time in six years, recording the first hit of his career and then scoring the winning run in the Orioles' 4-2, 12-inning victory?
There couldn't have been many among the 22,556 in attendance at Nationals Park for the first round of this season's "Battle of the Beltways" who predicted that outcome when the evening began.
"How often, especially in the American League, do you see the pitcher score the winning run?" Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said.
The Nationals certainly haven't seen that happen. Though given the way things have gone the past two months, it felt like a fitting cause for yet another demoralizing loss. Washington dropped its 11th game in 13 tries, and its beleaguered bullpen tossed four scoreless innings, then crumbled to take the loss.
"One of those things that happens in the game," said manager Manny Acta, whose club fell to 0-6 in extra innings this year.
In a matchup of two of the majors' least effective pitching staffs, these geographic rivals somehow got brilliant work from just about every hurler. Starters Jordan Zimmermann and Rich Hill each allowed two runs, then handed things over to the bullpens, which began churning out scoreless innings with surprising ease. That was, until the 12th, when Washington reliever Kip Wells was beaten by the unlikeliest of foes.
Baez had pitched two scoreless innings, yet with only one reserve left on his bench, Baltimore manager Dave Trembley sent the veteran reliever to the plate for the first time since 2003. Baez barely made contact but managed to put the ball in a perfect spot: halfway down the third-base line. Wells started after it, but Ryan Zimmerman called him off, thinking the ball might roll foul.
"You don't want him to barehand and throw it right there, especially with two outs," Zimmerman said. "You've got to just take the single and hope you can get out of it."
Wells couldn't get out of it. Brian Roberts laced a ground-rule double to left, and Jones followed with his own double to left, bringing home Baez (who said he couldn't recall scoring a run in his life) and Roberts to give the Orioles the lead for good.
"That's not the end of the world," Wells said of Baez's single. "You've got two outs and a man on first. That's not the hardest situation to get out of. It's just another game, and it happened to be me that was out there."
The late collapse spoiled a strong start by Zimmermann, who overcame his first-inning jinx and wound up allowing only two runs in seven.
If there has been any hiccup in the right-hander's first big league season, it has been a surprising inability to get out of the first unscathed. In his past five starts entering Friday, he had been scored on in the first, giving him a hideous 19.50 ERA in that inning versus a 3.54 ERA the rest of the way.
Zimmermann has said he tends to overthrow early, so pitching coach Randy St. Claire had him throw a simulated inning in the bullpen before Friday's game, hoping the 22-year-old would get his bad pitches out of the way.
It appeared to make a difference: Zimmermann mowed through the Orioles during a 1-2-3 first.
"It seemed to work today," he said. "So I imagine we're going to do the same thing and keep doing it."
Zimmermann did serve up a solo homer to Nolan Reimold in the second and then allowed another run in the third on a pair of two-out hits by Roberts and Jones. But he rebounded to keep the Orioles from scoring again through the seventh.
Despite the strong outing, the rookie couldn't earn his third career win because the Nationals got Zimmerman's two-run homer in the fourth and then little else. By the time Ronnie Belliard lined out to end the game, Washington's hit total for the night stood at a paltry four.
"Their bullpen just threw the ball real good," Acta said. "We only got one hit in the last eight innings. They threw the ball very well."
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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