Lasting images not ones to savor Zimmermann’s

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CINCINNATI | The lasting images from Jordan Zimmermann’s final innings of 2011 weren’t great.

There was the Washington Nationals right-hander, rubbing the ball between his hands, quietly fuming as he marched around the mound after the second solo home run he surrendered. And Zimmermann hitting Brandon Phillips to load the bases, then walking Fred Lewis to force home a run.

But the indelible image from Zimmermann’s last start of the season, a 5-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds in 14 innings, was of Collin Balester standing on the mound 8 2/3 innings after Zimmermann had vacated it pitching his third inning on his fourth consecutive day of work.

The Nationals’ sixth straight loss came hours after Zimmermann had exited and long after the ejections of manager Davey Johnson and bench coach Pat Corrales. Shadows crept into the outfield as afternoon turned to evening in the longest game in Nationals history (5 hour, 15 minutes). There was Balester (1-3), the symbol of a bullpen performance that suffered two blemishes, and both went over the fence.

Instead of remembering the four rallies that produced four runs, and the throw by Rick Ankiel from deep center to gun down speedy Dave Sappelt on a would-be triple - the Nationals were forced to replay just two pitches.

They were the images of Drew Storen surrendering a leadoff home run to Yonder Alonso in the ninth inning and Joey Votto hammering a 3-2 pitch from Balester into the left-field seats to lead off the 14th.

“The biggest story of the day is our bullpen,” shortstop Ian Desmond, shaking his head in disbelief. “They went what, [8 2/3] innings? They pretty much shut the door … [Balester] on his fourth day, going on his third inning. He threw his best pitch and got beat by the NL MVP. That takes some guts, to do what he did the last couple of days.”

He wasn’t alone as the Nationals used every reliever in their bullpen, even sending Wednesday’s starter John Lannan out there as the next man up. All but Storen and, ultimately, Balester, put up zeroes. It was a difficult task on a day where home plate umpire Sam Holbrooks strike zone was maddeningly inconsistent.

At least five Nationals and a handful of Reds found themselves in a situation where they thought theyd witnessed Ball 4, only to be told otherwise by Holbrook. There were others, such as Desmond, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse and Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who even tried to plead their case with Holbrook. Then there was the matter of managers Johnson and Dusty Baker and Corrales being ejected.

“[The strike zone] was somewhat inconsistent,” Johnson said, clearing his throat as he said it, and joking that he’d been “in here yelling too much and yelling at the umpires.”

“That was quite a day,” he added, roughly three hours after he’d been ejected for arguing that a pitch from Johnny Cueto struck Morse in the seventh inning. Replays were inconclusive, but Morse maintained that it hit him in the hand. Corrales was ejected from the dugout two innings later for remarking that a pitch was high.

In many ways, it was Zimmermann’s day. To be sure, he has things to improve on: not faltering late in games so that one pitch fells him, keeping his pitch counts low.

But the year also proved that the Nationals are not wrong in thinking - and salivating - about a rotation that starts with Stephen Strasburg and has Zimmermann, both completely healthy, falling next in line.

Zimmermann’s final line wasnt great. He gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings - the first time all year he could not make it through five - struck out

and walked one. But he also hit a batter and surrendered two home runs. Zimmermann finished 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA, 124 strikeouts and just 31 walks.

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