- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2012

MIAMI — For Jordan Zimmermann, it came down to two pitches.

The difference between the Washington Nationals moving their winning streak to four games or dropping their second contest of their nine-game trip, was two pitches. Two sliders.

“Two bad pitches,” Zimmermann said. “And it cost me the game.”

But in the Nationals’ 5-3 loss to the Miami Marlins on Monday, getting to those two sliders was a winding road.

They came in bleary-eyed and subdued, their previous victory not even 12 hours old by the time they were due to report to the clubhouse Monday morning.

They’d taken two buses and a plane to traverse the nearly 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami, getting their first taste of new Marlins Park under a haze of humidity and sleep deprivation.

They didn’t take batting practice, several players popping their heads out to get a look at the $515 million stadium for themselves but otherwise hitting in the cages. A few coaches came out to test the speed and consistency of the outfield grass and plenty marveled at the $2.5 million home run statue in center field.

They made no excuses for their energy level, which seemed normal, and brushed off any concerns of fatigue.

“You know, for the circumstances we were in, I thought we played well,” said manager Davey Johnson.

Zimmermann, who’d traveled ahead of the team to ensure a good night’s sleep, opened with three scoreless innings.

When he stepped to the plate in the top of the third, he worked Carlos Zambrano to a 2-2 count and then smoked a hanging curveball into the pool outside the Clevelander nightclub beyond the left-field wall. It was the first career homer for a player who hit .370 with 17 doubles and 14 homers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“I was just lucky enough to get the barrel out there,” Zimmermann said, explaining his brief pause around second base to be sure it had cleared the wall. “It’s hard to see. There’s so many bright objects out there, and he kind of fell down. I didn’t know if he had it in the glove or not.”

It served to awaken his offense, which supplied him with more run support Monday than they had on average (2.9) all season.

The offense began to chip away at Zambrano, putting two runners on in the fourth with the game 1-1. And it finally broke through with one-out singles from Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper in the fifth, brought around to score on a two-run double to left-center by Ryan Zimmerman. That gave the Nationals (29-19) a two-run lead.

But those sliders.

Zimmermann surrendered a solo home run to Logan Morrison in the fourth, but he’d retired six straight by the time the sixth inning opened up. Things unraveled from there.

First he had Hanley Ramirez down 1-2 and failed to put him away. At 2-2, he decided to throw a slider. The first regrettable offering. Ramirez hit it for his third single of the day.

Then, slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who already has etched his name into the young park’s lore with power to the furthest reaches of the stadium, strode to the plate.

Zimmermann threw him a 3-1 slider, and Stanton made him regret it the moment it hit his bat.

“You can’t throw a hanging a slider to him,” Johnson said. “He pitched him good the whole game. To get really beat on that pitch, that’s tough. You just can’t make mistakes with that part of the lineup.”

“I can throw anything in any situation,” Zimmermann said. “I just have to get it down a little more. That was right over the middle, and he’s one of those guys that’s trying to pull everything. He hits mistakes.”

His two-run shot tied the game, and Zimmermann would one more run before his day was over. A win was too far out of reach for an offense that generated little in the game’s final three frames.

“A little air went out of us when Stanton hit that bomb,” Johnson said. “We had our chances. We bounced back. We had the right guys up, we just didn’t seem to get it done.”