The cracks of the bats grew progressively louder with each pitch Tim Lincecum left up. With each meatball over the plate, the Nationals batters’ eyes widened in disbelief of their good fortunes. His hair soaked in sweat on the 94-degree D.C. evening at Nationals Park, his arms glistening, Lincecum looked gradually more defeated with each ball that was barreled up.
The Giants’ otherworldly ace is not himself this season. His lack of command most notable to the Nationals. But as human as he’s looked this year, and as human as the Nationals have made him seem over the years, they’d never witnessed anything like this version of The Freak.
In an 9-3 rain-delayed victory, the Nationals tagged Lincecum for a season-high eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits and two walks to inflate his ERA to 6.08 and WHIP to 1.55. Ian Desmond, 9-for-11 lifetime off Lincecum, got him for a home run. Danny Espinosa missed his own by mere inches and settled for an RBI double. The switch-hitter entered with a .190 average as a left-handed batter this season. He was 3-for-4 — with all three hits as a lefty — in what manager Davey Johnson called “the most exciting” development to come out of the game.
And the man with the best ERA (2.70) on their staff — coincidentally the only member of their vaunted Top 3 starters not to earn an All-Star nod — delivered his 16th start of six innings or more this season and reveled in the newfound run support his team is providing. Jordan Zimmermann, for whom the Nationals have scored 20 runs across his last two starts after averaging 3.4 runs per game in the first 14, was exceptional for six innings, again. He struck out seven and allowed two runs (one earned) on seven hits.
Zimmermann is one of only three pitchers in the major leagues to complete at least six innings in all of his starts this season, joined only by Detroit’s Justin Verlander and San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong.
He smiled when asked what it’s like to pitch with the types of commanding leads he’s had the last two times out. “It’s definitely nice,” the normally understated Zimmermann said. “It’s what we always do for Jordan,” Desmond chimed in. “We give Jordan all the runs.”
But when it came to what it could mean for the Nationals’ future if the offense continued to produce this way, Zimmermann was anything but understated.
“If they keep hitting the way they’re hitting now, I don’t see why we can’t just run away with this in the second half,” Zimmermann said. “And if we keep pitching the way we are, I mean, It’s going to be tough to beat us.”
They had to wait an extra 85 minutes to solidify a win that would put them 3 ½ games up on the New York Mets, sitting out mostly light rain that began at 8:57 p.m. for an extended period with an 11:05 a.m. first-pitch for beckoning on the Fourth of July. But when it was over, the Nationals headed into the national holiday with the best record in the National League at 46-32. They’re the first Washington team to lead their league this late in a season since the 1933 Washington Senators — and that was the last D.C. team to reach the World Series.
“When the middle of the lineup starts swinging the bat like it’s capable of doing, the rest of the guys are starting to gel and that really just puts the icing on the cake,” Johnson said, his 3-4-5 hitters all collecting a hit and his Nos. 5 and 6 hitters, Desmond and Espinosa, reaping the benefits of their thickened middle of the order.
“It takes the pressure off everybody in the lineup and everybody can trust each other,” he added. “Don’t have to do too much. Anybody in our lineup, especially our All-Star shortstop, they’re just swinging the heck out of it. We’re not doing anything that I didn’t think we were capable of doing.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals paraded their three All-Stars, Desmond, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, into the interview room at Nationals Park. For the first time in their history, they had to have a press conference for the All-Star Game with three seats at it. They talked about the honor of representing a team they feel is filled with All-Stars and spent the majority of the session discussing the players they left in the clubhouse when they came to be lauded for their own accomplishments.
They talked about a team that drew 36,985 fans on a steamy night in the District to see a matchup of two first-place teams — and almost all of them were wearing their colors. They talked about a city that continues to pay attention to and be proud of its baseball team.
“I don’t think they can help it,” said Desmond, who was 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI. “We’ve set new standards here.”