BALTIMORE — For much of the past few weeks, when the Washington Nationals have been winning and putting up big offensive numbers, it's been in spite of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. When they were struggling and losing, his issues glared like a throbbing thumb on an otherwise healthy hand.
With each night his average seemed to tumble, his shoulder discomfort finally getting bad enough that something had to be done, the answer for the Nationals was most often that there was no reason to panic. They are, after all, in first place in the National League East without their best hitter performing up to par, and their MLB-best pitching staff is almost always there to save them.
It was an ironic but telling twist, then, when Zimmerman drove in Washington's only run in a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday and was one of its two players (Bryce Harper the other) with two hits. Zimmerman hitting like himself will help, but it won't cure all that ails the offense.
The Nationals have scored the third-fewest runs in the league, a mark that stands in stark contrast to the historical ones their pitching staff is chasing.
Sunday was the 26th one-run game they've played, a stress on their staff that, to this point, had rarely broken them. Sean Burnett the least likely of any to crack.
But in the eighth inning, the frame that has become Burnett's since Tyler Clippard moved into the closer's role in late May, Adam Jones singled and Matt Wieters, hitting more than 200 points better right-handed than left-handed, crushed Burnett's 0-1 sinker into the Orioles' bullpen. Wieters flipped his bat. Burnett didn't even bother to turn and watch.
"We need to score more," Zimmerman said, a cortisone shot administered before the game to the AC joint of his right shoulder relieving some of the pain that had contributed to his .218 average.
"That's not in question. Those guys have been unbelievable, and Burnie's been right there at the top. ... We definitely need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities."
It was Burnett who was standing on the mound when the winning runs rounded the bases at Camden Yards. But it was the Nationals' hitters who struggled to get on base. And when they did, they were most often left there. The Nationals went 1 for 5 with runners in scoring position, an indication of how few times they had opportunities, and they left six on. They had base runners in all but two innings. Only once did they score.
"We're supposed to do our jobs and get out of that," Burnett said, asked about constantly pitching with such a small margin of error. "It's not the easiest thing in the world. You'd like to have a little bit of leniency. But a one-run lead, our job is to come in and nail it down. And unfortunately I didn't do that today."
Ross Detwiler made his first start since May 25, threw five shutout innings, battled himself and a somewhat inconsistent strike zone, and came out of it with nothing to show but an ERA lowered 0.25 points. Before the game, first baseman Adam LaRoche joked with manager Davey Johnson not to screw things up.
"I said, 'Adam, it would help if you guys would score a few more runs and give me a little more leeway,' " Johnson said. "Hopefully they'll take my advice."
In that regard, Zimmerman's afternoon was the most encouraging sign the Nationals could have gotten. It had been just a few hours since the team discussed publicly the possibility of Zimmerman needing a disabled list stint when they decided to give him the injection. A few hours after that, he was striking the ball better than he had in weeks.
"It's relief," Zimmerman said, the hope now being that he will be able to maintain the pain with periodic shots to get him through the season performing the way he's capable and the possibility of offseason surgery if rest after the season doesn't cure him.
"It wasn't so bad before that I couldn't do anything," he said. "But obviously I wasn't performing. To go out there today and feel a little bit like I could do the things that I've always been able to do gave me a little bit more confidence."
It was his first multihit game in more than two weeks, and his demeanor after the game made clear how much of a weight it seemed to lift from him. The Nationals lost their sixth of 24 series this season, but there weren't too many heads hung low. On to the next series, against the woebegone Colorado Rockies, perhaps with the No. 3 hitter they're accustomed to.
"He looked like the old Zim," Johnson said. "That's a great sign."
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