ST. LOUIS — Jordan Zimmermann took his right foot and grazed it across the dirt in front of the rubber slab on the mound at Busch Stadium. It was his silent protest. His second to wonder how things had spiraled so far out of control.
All around him the world was spinning. White towels on the arms of 45,840 St. Louis Cardinals fans waved in jubilation as Allen Craig rounded the bases. Zimmermann stood alone. The highest point on the field was the personal island for a Washington Nationals starting pitcher for the second straight day.
It wasn’t the defining moment in the Nationals’ 12-4 loss to the Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. It couldn’t be. Not when there were three other St. Louis home runs to point to, 12 other hits and 11 other runners who’d cross home plate.
The fans, clad in red and white and reveling in a crisp fall afternoon at the ballpark, called out the rising run totals with glee. In the sixth inning, 2 ½ hours after the game began, they were falling into a delirious tizzy by the time they reached the number eight.
“You know,” manager Davey Johnson said, hours after he pulled his starter, “you have to pitch. You can’t go out there and just throw against this ballclub. You have to make some good pitches.”
The implication, of course, is that Zimmermann didn’t. That the Nationals’ pitchers hadn’t in a lambasting that made them happy to leave St. Louis with a split and head home for what’s essentially a best-of-three series, but lamenting what could’ve been. It was a cruel reminder of the magnitude of these games.
“A loss is a loss,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t think that anyone cared that we won by one [Sunday]. The goal was to win one game out here. Two would’ve been a bonus. We’ll forget about this game, take the split as a positive and go home.”
They grinded through the first playoff game in team history Sunday and escaped with a 3-2 victory. The second-best-hitting offense in the National League didn’t make them pay for allowing copious base runners and the Nationals capitalized. They spoke of forcing the Cardinals into a must-win situation in Game 2, knowing they’d be heading to Washington for as many as three games this week to close out the series.
Then they saw their second straight starting pitcher falter.
“Gio [Gonzalez] walked a lot of guys [Sunday], but he was able to work out of some jams,” said Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso, who was 2 for 4 with a home run. “We didn’t let Zimmermann off the hook today.”
The Nationals had scarce opportunities late. Back-to-back home runs by Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche that went for naught. A rocket hit to left-center by Danny Espinosa that was sure for extra bases before Jon Jay leapt and crashed into the wall to catch it.
A seventh-inning begun with back-to-back hits by Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper wasted moments later after a line drive by Zimmerman was caught, Harper was thrown out on the bases and LaRoche popped out in foul ground.
But the Nationals had larger issues than a few tough-luck offensive moments.
The bedrock on which their 2012 season was built was starting pitching. It was their vehicle toward a place among the game’s elite and their fallback plan, even when their offense faltered.
It has also been their biggest weakness in the playoffs.