- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HOUSTON — The scene was an unfamiliar one: Jordan Zimmermann, the Washington Nationals’ 25-year-old ace-in-the-making, craning his neck as he watched the ball crack off the Houston Astros‘ bats.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way for Zimmermann. He wasn’t supposed to be the guy throwing what manager Davey Johnson called a “cookie” in a tie game, on a 2-2 count, to the same batter who’d already homered off him. But Tuesday night, he’d watch six Houston Astros cross the plate in front of him — more runs than he had allowed in over two years.

In dropping the middle game of the series 7-6 to the Astros, the Nationals’ offense and Zimmermann reversed roles. Instead of watching him breeze through the opponents’ lineup as his teammates struggled to muster enough offense to get him a win, the bats came alive and the right-hander struggled.

“I just didn’t have a good feel for much of anything,” Zimmermann, who lasted five innings, said. “My slider was pretty terrible tonight and I had a rough time locating the fastball. When you have nights like that, you’re going to get hit around.

“It’s a shame. The offense puts up six runs and I feel like I didn’t do my part.”

Perhaps the disappointment Zimmermann felt is a product of his own dominance. The right-hander had allowed a total eight earned runs (four of them coming in one start against the Cubs on July 4), over his past eight starts. He entered Tuesday’s game with a 2.66 ERA and was due to face a team with the worst record in the major leagues (32-65), despite a .260 overall batting average. 

But in his shortest outing of the season, Zimmermann gave up more runs than he had in a start since May 7, 2009. It was an uncharacteristic explosion for any team against the Nationals’ right-hander, who has 14 quality starts this season. Johnson pointed to one pitch as the tipping point: the 2-2 slider to shotstop Clint Barmes Barmes with runners on second and third in the fourth — after Zimmermann had been up 0-2 to begin the at-bat.

“If he gets ahead of a guy, I don’t expect him to make bad pitches,” Johnson said, calling the pitch the thing that bothered him most the whole ballgame. “The hitter’s got to hit a pitch off the plate: a nasty pitch. He hung a slider right down the middle. It was flat and drove in two runs and then they drove in a run on the squeeze when he didn’t cover first — those things upset me.

“I thought he battled and he didn’t have his best stuff but when you’ve got two strikes on a hitter, you just don’t give him a cookie. … With the catcher coming up, [against] the seventh-hole hitter [Humberto Quintero] hitting .250, if he gets ahead, make a good pitch to get him out. He needs to learn how to do that.”

It would have been the perfect night for the Nationals’ offense to make up for the lack of run support that Zimmermann has faced for much of this season. Seven times this year Zimmermann has held the opposing team to three runs or less and still lost or took a no-decision. Washington came close, chipping away at an Astros‘ pitching staff that had compiled the second-worst ERA in the National League (4.65) entering Tuesday night.

They got a huge night out of first baseman Michael Morse,  who reached base five times, with two doubles, a two-run home run in the second, a walk and a hit by pitch. And they welcomed Jerry Hairston Jr. back to the lineup for the first time since June 29. He added a double and a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the deficit to 6-4. Ian Desmond would also single home a run in the inning to bring the Nats within a run.

But the Astros scored what proved to be the winning run in the sixth on a Michael Bourn RBI single after Todd Coffey had retired the first two batters in the inning.

Down 7-6 after getting a run back in the seventh, Hairston singled off the left field wall to lead off the eighth but was thrown out at second by left fielder Carlos Lee. Morse and Jayson Werth reached base in the ninth with two outs to threaten, but Wilson Ramos struck out to end the game. Ultimately, the hole Zimmermann had dug was too big for the Nationals to climb out of.

“This is the big leagues,” Hairston said. “Jordan’s been outstanding all year for us and he’s already a very good pitcher. He’s going to be a great pitcher, but tip your hat to the Astros who swung the bat very well. It just was an off night.”