Jordan Zimmermann is not a man of many words. The Nationals' enigmatic right-hander rarely shows emotion – on the mound or off it -- but even a stoic pitcher's mind can race when he's set down the first 15 batters of a baseball game without allowing a single baserunner.
Maybe Zimmermann, just 20 months after Tommy John surgery, would throw the first perfect game in Washington Nationals' history. Maybe he'd throw the first no-hitter since the team moved back to D.C., or maybe he'd just settle for shutting out the Philadelphia Phillies for a series-clinching victory.
"I knew I hadn't given up any hits," Zimmermann admitted. "But I just tried to throw strikes."
One swing of the bat in the sixth inning from Carlos Ruiz and Zimmermann could no longer accomplish any of those feats. When Ruiz sent an 0-1 curveball from Zimmermann sailing off the top of the left field wall for a home run Thursday night at Nationals Park, any designs on a historic night went with it.
So too, did the Nationals hopes for a win, falling 4-0 to the Phillies as their anemic offense mustered just three hits off Cliff Lee. The curveball, one of just eight he would throw, was up in the zone a bit and the only mistake Zimmermann made all evening.
"I'm a Jordan Zimmermann fan to the end," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who's played with Zimmermann since Double-A. "I know he's got great stuff. The way he battles – that's Cliff Lee out there. A lot of pitchers would have maybe shied away but he kept on going, pitch for pitch with him.
"He hung that one curveball. If he's pitching with a lead, I guarantee you he doesn't hang that curveball. That does not happen. I know he's got the wherewithal and the demeanor where, if he's got a lead, he's going to keep the lead. There's no doubt in my mind that he doesn't hang that pitch if he has a lead."
One night after being two-hit by Roy Halladay through eight innings, the Nationals once again were baffled by a Phillies starter. Save for the four-hit ninth they put together against Halladay on Wednesday, the Nationals have just five hits in the past two games and they've scored two runs in their last 18 innings. For the Phillies, Lee and Halladay combined for the first back-to-back complete games since Paul Byrd and Curt Schilling did it in May of 1999.
So as good as Zimmermann was – and, as Nationals manager Jim Riggleman put it, he was "outstanding," – Lee was better. There was no support for him offensively and he was left tagged with an undeserved loss after seven innings of work where he allowed just one run, didn't walk anyone and struck out four.
"That might be the best fastball I've ever seen," Lee said of Zimmermann. "That guy looked good to me. He has some serious zip on it. It said 94, 95 but it looked harder to me. He shut our lineup down for the better part of the game."
Zimmermann used just 85 pitches in seven innings, 54 through five, and was so effective that only 21 of those pitches were thrown for balls as he became the 12th straight starter for the Nationals this season to last at least five innings. The final three runs the Phillies scored were unearned, the Nationals committing two costly errors in the sixth and the eighth innings to allow them in.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, while Lee was the first to give up a hit, a double to second baseman Danny Espinosa in the second inning, he was almost perfect for the rest of the night. With the Nationals hitters forcing him into three-ball counts just three times all night, Lee walked one and struck out 12 in the nine-inning effort.
The last two games alone, the top four hitters in the Nationals lineup, Desmond, Rick Ankiel, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, are a combined 4-for-29 – exacerbating the loss of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman while he's on the disabled list with an abdominal strain. Desmond himself, after hitting .360 on the team's first road trip of the season, is 0-for-25 with a walk at Nationals Park this season at the leadoff spot.
"All offseason they were talking about how our pitching staff is the question and our offense is great," Desmond said. "Now it's time for us to turn it on. The pitching staff is doing their job, we've got to go out and do the rest.
"It doesn't help that the leadoff guy hasn't been on base at home yet. That's a fact. I've got to get on base if the team wants to score runs and if I want to see our pitching staff pitch well, we've got to give them a lead. It's as simple as that."
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