BALTIMORE — It had all been going so well for Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday afternoon. Before the first-pitch fastball he unleashed to Nick Markakis to begin the seventh inning, and before his third pitch to the next batter, Vladimir Guerrero, was promptly deposited in the left-field seats, Zimmermann was toying with the Baltimore Orioles.
He was dropping ridiculous curveballs to fool catcher Matt Wieters, inducing ground balls from the likes of Adam Jones, Markakis and Luke Scott. He was busy setting down 13 straight batters between the second and seventh and spinning what could have been just the second shutout outing of his post-Tommy John surgery career in yet another dominant performance.
But felled once again by a lack of offensive support, Zimmermann’s outing was marred by the curveball to Guerrero - one he tried to bounce - that was the defining swing in the Washington Nationals’ 2-1 loss. Instead, he was left with the loss in a second straight game that made the Nationals’ record-setting outburst in the series opener a distant memory.
“He was pitching well,” Guerrero said. “I got lucky to get a good pitch to hit.”
But that one pitch aside, it could have been a different game for Washington and its right-hander, who turns 25 on Monday. It may never have transpired that way had the Nationals not left nine runners on before Guerrero stepped to the plate in the seventh, or if they’d cashed in for more than just one run when they had Orioles starter Chris Tillman on the ropes with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth.
Instead they were stifled by Markakis, the Orioles‘ right fielder - first on a terrific throw that held Jayson Werth at third base on a flyout by Ivan Rodriguez and then on a running catch of a laser off the bat of Roger Bernadina to end the inning.
“You can just play the tape from any of the other games,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman, who’s close to running out of explanations for his team’s lack of production.
“We had our chances, and we’ve got to cash in. Nobody’s more frustrated than the players and myself that we didn’t get a couple runs there. … We needed to turn [the fourth] into a big inning.”
Riggleman wasn’t around to see much of it anyway, relegated to the manager’s office in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards with his second ejection of the season after he’d seen just two pitches from the bench.
Bernadina attempted to bunt for a hit off Tillman’s 89-mph fastball, and he hustled down the line and clapped his hands victoriously at the safe call by first base umpire Gerry Davis. But simultaneously, home plate umpire Tim Tichenor had waved off the play, immediately calling Bernadina out for stepping on home plate with his left foot during the bunt - a call that’s rarely made.
Riggleman was incensed, first assuming he was called out for running outside the baseline, but then over the fact the call was made on a play that often happens without incident.
“I didn’t even have an argument, I just was irritated that the call was made,” Riggleman said. “The call was right, but it’s a call you just never see get made … Without naming names, I know a couple of guys who’ve bunted the ball and quite often step on the plate and you don’t see it until you look at the video, but Bernie must have made it pretty obvious.”
One batter later, Ian Desmond doubled to center field and the Nationals could have led 1-0. Ultimately, it went down as another wasted opportunity in the their 25th loss, which bench coach John McLaren presided over for the final 8 2/3 innings.
“It just seems like little things, here and there, just mount for us,” McLaren said. “We’ve been inconsistent and we know one day it’s just going to hit us, and we’re going to take off but we haven’t got there yet. We work as hard as any team I’ve ever been around in 24 years in the big leagues. Good things have got to start happening for us.”