- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2012

It wasn’t until the final pitch of the game that the Pittsburgh Pirates finally brought the Washington Nationals to their knees in a literal fashion. Ian Desmond swung through Joel Hanrahan’s 0-2 slider after being fed two screaming fastballs, fell to one knee and stared off into the distance down the left field line. Game over, an opportunity lost.

But figuratively, anyway, in beating the Washington Nationals 5-3 on Thursday night, Pirates pitchers made a habit of making the Nats’ hitters genuflect. Fourteen out of 27 outs the Pirates registered, in a contest that went from perfect game to no-hitter to nail-biter in the span of two innings, were strikeouts. Ten of them were swinging.

Pirates starter James McDonald was so effective early in the game, so deceptive with a curveball that was rarely in the strike zone and seeing plays made behind him when the ball, albeit rarely, was put in play that the thought had to begin creeping in: Could the Nationals get no-hit?

“I mean, I think we [opened the game] with eight out of 10 strikeouts — because the pitcher put one in play,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson.

There wasn’t much each player could pass along as they returned to the dugout, shaking their heads after being fooled by yet another offspeed offering from McDonald, who fanned 11 and had a 2.42 ERA entering the game. “He was starting it like it was a strike all the way, and then it wasn’t a strike,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Players passed on what they saw, what the pitch looked like before it broke and looked as it crossed the plate and “you hope you can build off that,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “It just didn’t happen.”

“Major league pitchers are good,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes they just got you.”

But as has been McDonald’s history, he’s only “got” hitters for so long. Eventually, the cracks in his armor will become more visible. Even when players are making highlight-reel plays behind him, like Andrew McCutchen on LaRoche’s near-double to center. Or when they’re hitting home runs to support you, like McCutchen did twice and Rod Barajas did once to give Jordan Zimmermann his first non-quality start of the year, eventually McDonald breaks.

He cracked in the fifth inning, walking Bryce Harper with one out and losing his shot at a potential perfect game. He broke in the sixth when Jesus Flores ensured there would be no no-hitter and Zimmerman and LaRoche combined to drive in three runs and make a game of it. McDonald was pulled after 5 2/3 innings.

“We could’ve rolled over and let him cruise,” Zimmerman said, taking quiet solace in the team’s three-run sixth that featured singles from he, Flores and Steve Lombardozzi, along with LaRoche’s 10th career triple. “We battled back and made it a game and we had a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for every night.”

On this night, though, with Zimmermann pitching “the worst I’ve seen him with his command early in a ballgame,” according to Johnson, it wasn’t enough. Zimmermann admitted he was rushing himself, never allowing his arm to catch up to the rest of his body in his motion and the result leading him to very little command of his fastball.

He couldn’t locate to McCutchen, who’ll finish the year 10-for-17 with four homers, six RBI and three walks against the Nationals, and his pitch count soared. Through four innings, he’d throw 73 pitches, making it a wonder he got through six, but he improved in his efficiency in the final two frames.

“A bad start where you go six and give up four? That’s pretty good,” Zimmerman said. “Jordan’s going to be great. Just like Stephen [Strasburg]. They’re not going to pitch great every single time. It’s impossible to do that. If they can go six and give up four and that’s a bad start, I think we’ll take that.”

They spoke quietly in a sparse clubhouse after the game, their standing in the National League East slipping to a half-game behind the Atlanta Braves for second place. They focused on the positives as they unpacked their 15th loss of the season. But it was difficult to do so without pondering what could have been.

“We were knocking on the door the whole time, I felt like,” Desmond said. “We had opportunities. I had opportunities. Kind of squandered them. We could’ve won that ballgame very easily.”