- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2012

CHICAGO — A few hours before his team’s third game, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson was asked, somewhat jokingly, if his team would ever consider getting an early lead.

After eighth- and ninth-inning comeback wins in the season’s first two games, the Nationals were making a habit of hanging around just long enough to throw kerosene on the Chicago Cubs‘ flammable bullpen.

“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I kinda like the way it’s working.”

They set themselves up to play out the same script Sunday as Chicago’s Jeff Samardzija and Washington’s Jordan Zimmermann dueled for seven innings. But after pushing the right buttons in the first two games, it went awry for the Nationals in a 4-3 loss.

They never got into the Cubs‘ bullpen, not until two were out in the ninth inning, anyway. And they were baffled by Samardzija, who threw 110 pitches in his first start since 2010, and who still was pumping 98-mph fastballs in the ninth.

Their own bullpen, the one that had tallied 7⅓ scoreless innings in the first two games and helped to allow the Nationals’ slow-awakening offense to ultimately get the job done, faltered.

“I felt if we could stay within one run, we’d win the ballgame,” Johnson said.

But they couldn’t.

A leadoff walk issued by Ryan Mattheus in the eighth allowed the Cubs to tack on two runs that would prove pivotal. Adam LaRoche belted a two-out, two-run homer to right in the ninth, but Washington couldn’t quite seal a third straight comeback.

“Shoot,” LaRoche said. “I still don’t have [Samardzija] figured out. I went up there in three [previous] at-bats, and he just carved me up.”

He wasn’t alone. Ultimately, accruing just nine hits in innings one through seven this series and striking out 23 times in 22⅓ innings against the Cubs‘ starters, cost them a season-opening sweep. Ultimately relying on perfection out of a pitcher, who has seen seven of his past 12 losses (dating to 2011) come when he’s allowed two earned runs or fewer, was not enough.

“Three guys threw great games against us,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to give credit where credit’s due.”

“I mean, it’s the third game of the season,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the Nationals who hasn’t had a problem getting on base. “We’re going to get it going.”

Zimmermann was the tough-luck loser, a label the Nationals seemed to perfect for him in 2011, after needing just 80 pitches to get through seven innings having allowed just one earned run. The lack of run support (the Nationals averaged just 2.6 runs while he was in the game last year) hasn’t changed his approach, but the times he’s been rewarded by his offense for doing what he always seems to are few and far between.

“It’d be nice to score some more early, give our pitchers a little cushion,” LaRoche said. “Those guys have been doing a great a job. I don’t think anybody’s looking at it saying we need to press early in the game. Keep doing what we’re doing.

“It’s nice to have the confidence late in games that we can hang in there, get some runners on and make some things happen.”

Notes: Nationals prospect Anthony Rendon badly sprained his left ankle Saturday night as he rounded third base in Single-A Potomac’s game in Lynchburg, Va.

The extent of the sprain is not yet known as the Nationals gather information and wait for the swelling to go down, but X-Rays were negative. Witnesses said Rendon required assistance to leave the field and was not putting weight on the leg.

The No. 6 overall pick in 201, Rendon has been plagued by injuries in his brief career. He tore ligaments in his right ankle in 2009, which required surgery, and suffered a severe break of the same ankle in the summer of 2010 with Team USA. He spent the majority of his 2011 season with Rice serving as the designated hitter as a shoulder strain prohibited him from playing the field.

There was no timetable for his recovery.

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