BALTIMORE — The sound it made off of Jesus Flores‘ bat was so clean. It was flush, and loud, and pure. One crack of the bat like that, it seemed, and the Washington Nationals’ night of offensive misery at Camden Yards against Jason Hammel was over.
And then J.J. Hardy leapt. He extended his left arm, he stretched his 6-foot-1 shortstop’s frame as long as he could, and the ball, the one Flores had connected with for a sure run-scoring hit seconds before, was in his glove. The inning was over. Soon the game, which ended as a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, would be too.
“You think it’s going to be a base hit,” Jordan Zimmermann said, his body aching after he slowly made his way to his locker. “It’s an out in the book.”
One inch higher, maybe, and another infuriating offensive performance with Zimmermann on the mound could be forgotten. Another 0-for-4 night for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, dropping his average to .222 this season, wouldn’t matter so much.
One tick to the right or left and maybe the Nationals would have won three in a row instead of dropping their fifth of their last seven games.
“If you don’t know already, Hammel is a pretty unbelievable pitcher,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, his hustle the only reason the Nationals weren’t shutout on the evening after he practically willed his way home in the fifth inning. “He’s an ace. Probably one of the better pitchers we’ve seen this year.”
“We’ve been on top of a lot of one-run games,” he added. “We can’t expect to win them all. … We’re in first place, you know what I mean? It’s not like we’re not trying. We’re in first place. There’s really nobody in here should be down. Nobody should be upset. We’re putting in a good effort. Sometimes, somebody’s got to lose.”
On this night, it was a Nationals team that watched Zimmermann take what he called a “terrible” slider that “was just spinning,” and “fastball command that wasn’t that good,” to the mound and battle for seven innings. Through rain, a sticky mound, eight hits — including a missile of a home run by Mark Reynolds — baserunners in all but one inning and a line drive off the arch of his left foot, Zimmermann fought.
His team responded by barely working the count against the Orioles’ big right-hander. Hammel, who is putting together a fabulous first season in Baltimore, toyed with the Nationals for eight innings. He struck out 10, matching a career high, and he rarely gave up a hard-hit ball that wasn’t right at someone. Even the one run he allowed came on a routine ground out.
The Nationals offense hasn’t been clicking lately. The middle of their lineup is hardly producing. Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche are a combined 12-for-76 (.158) in the last seven games, and manager Davey Johnson admitted Friday night he’s considered moving Zimmerman (3-for-28 in that stretch) out of the No. 3 spot, but won’t.
“I like him where he’s at,” he said. “I know what he can do. He doesn’t have to prove anything. I still like the chances every time he’s in there. … He’ll come out of it. It’s a tough time for him. But we need him.”
“We’ve been winning so that’s made it a little bit easier,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s still frustrating. … Nobody wants to do better than me. I want to do better. I want to get out of this.”
But while he tries, the Nationals are struggling to get their lineup in sync; they’d put just two runners on base all night before Desmond singled to open the fifth. The predominant thought on his mind as he saw Roger Bernadina’s one-out grounder head toward third baseman Wilson Betemit was to be aggressive.
“If we were scoring 15 runs a game, I wouldn’t try to put so much pressure on the other team,” Desmond said.
But that’s not the case. In the last seven games, the Nationals have topped three runs only twice. Desmond saw Betemit field the ball and knew his body would likely follow his throw to first base. As he rounded second, he knew he had to take a shot. He went for third. He saw Betemit retreat, “so I panicked a little bit. I slid and saw the ball go down the line,” he said. A few seconds later, he was home.