ST. LOUIS — Jordan Zimmermann lifted his head to follow the flight of the ball off Matt Adams’ bat in the sixth inning on Wednesday afternoon. And after it dropped into the Cardinals‘ bullpen, Zimmermann pivoted, walked off the back of the mound and returned his gaze to the right field fence. Whether it was out of disbelief or just plain frustration, Zimmermann stared for several more seconds.
A one-run lead that he’d surrendered two innings earlier on a ground ball up the middle had grown larger. The St. Louis Cardinals, thorn in the side of a pitcher who so often makes the opposition seem like little more than spectators, continued to torment Zimmermann.
And, with a 4-1 victory that was the Nationals’ seventh consecutive defeat at the Cardinals‘ hands, to do the same to his whole team.
“They just kicked our butt in just about every aspect of the game,” said manager Davey Johnson, who made no secret of his desire to exact what small bit of revenge he could on the Cardinals. For Game 5. For eliminating his team from playoff contention this year. For beating them five straight times coming into this game.
“I kept my regular lineup in there because I wanted us to stand up and show them we’re better,” Johnson said. “But we couldn’t do that… That hurts a little bit. I wanted to beat them bad.”
Zimmermann’s season solidified his place among the game’s elite as he finished 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, earned his first All-Star selection with a mind-bogglingly good first half, and continued his progression into an ace. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez draw the headlines, but multiple members of the organization pointed to Zimmermann this season as the one they’d put at the front of the line — and it’s not meant as a knock on either of the other two.
The Cardinals, Zimmermann’s biggest nuisance over the course of his career, deprived him of his 20th win on Wednesday. But one of the right-hander’s main goals this season was to go deeper into games. He’ll finish with 213 ⅓ innings, breaking the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career, and averaging 6 ⅔ innings per start with four complete games and two shutouts.
“He’s pitched good ever since I got here, for three straight years now,” said right fielder Jayson Werth. “He’s a horse. He’s probably our No. 1 guy on the staff.”
“I just like his mentality when he’s on the mound,” said center fielder Denard Span, who scored the Nationals’ only run on an RBI single by Bryce Harper in the first inning. “He’s coming to get you. He challenges you. He throws everything. Even when the season started, everyone was talking about Strasburg and all the other guys, and I think he’s been our best pitcher all year.
“Not to take anything from Strasburg, but Zimmermann has been consistent all season long for us, and he’s been a guy that when he gets the ball, we have a good chance of winning.”
But even as they reflected on an overall strong season for Zimmermann, it was difficult to ignore another defeat, their 75th of the season.
Over the course of their three-day stay in St. Louis, the Nationals put up little fight to the Cardinals‘ efforts to steamroll over them. If one team can have another’s number, the Nationals may have stumbled into it here.
“They just flat-out kicked our butts,” Span said. “You lose six games, they were just better than us.”
The talent levels on paper don’t seem so disparate. And the guesses as to why the Cardinals could dominate the Nationals as much as they have spread over different facets of the game.
“Whenever somebody gets in scoring position, they bring them in,” Span said, referencing the Cardinals‘ .330 average with runners in scoring position, a mark that will set the record as the best in major league history.