- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

HOUSTON | By the time Sunday’s bizarre, no-way-this-happens-to-anyone-else moment arrived, the Washington Nationals’ 61st loss of 2009 already had been largely settled.

Tyler Clippard reared back in the eighth inning, and his spike got caught midway through his gangly delivery. The reliever stumbled forward with the ball in his hand, and his balk gave the Houston Astros their fifth run in a 5-0 Nationals defeat.

As much comedy as the moment provided, the Nationals lost this game the way they’ve lost most of their games this season. Though the gaffes have been there plenty of nights, Washington ended the first half with baseball’s worst record because of more mundane concepts like execution and consistency. Or - more precisely - a lack of both.

Their sixth loss in seven games owed more to those two things than any slapstick moments. Washington got shut out despite registering 11 hits, the most any team in the majors has posted during a shutout this season, and leaving 13 runners on base. Starter Jordan Zimmermann, six innings into one of his best starts of the year, missed his spot on a fastball in the seventh inning, gave up a crushing three-run homer and lost his composure from there.

On this road trip, a draining swing through Colorado and Houston, the Nationals lost three one-run games and three games that could have been closer than they were. And they parted ways for three days for the All-Star break, vowing to play the second half of the season with less of the self-nullifying problems that defined the first half.

“To win at this level, you’ve got to play at all three facets of the game. You’ve got to catch the ball, you’ve got to pitch the ball and you’ve got to hit it,” outfielder Josh Willingham said. “When we do those things well, we’re a good team. When we don’t, when we do one out of three, we’re not.”

On Sunday, it was tough to find any area in which the Nationals excelled, though Zimmermann was sharp enough for six innings to line up a chance at his fourth win.

He gave up just one run in that time, set up by Alberto Gonzalez’s error in the first inning, but sliced through the Astros’ lineup after the first inning primarily with a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider.

The seventh inning, though, was when the right-hander looked like a rookie again.

Zimmermann started the inning by hitting Geoff Blum and giving up a single to Hunter Pence. He threw his first pitch inside to Ivan Rodriguez, who was trying to bunt, and home-plate umpire Adrian Johnson said it made contact with Rodriguez’s bat, overruling a protest by Astros manager Cecil Cooper that the pitch had hit Rodriguez. Zimmermann found enough for one last strikeout against the catcher, but problems were just beginning.

He started Kaz Matsui with a fastball low and away for strike one. Catcher Wil Nieves wanted the next fastball in the same spot; Zimmermann put it up and inside. Matsui pulled it just over the right-field fence, the Minute Maid Park crowd of 28,680 roared and Zimmermann stood hunched over, his hands on his knees, and shouted at the ground.

Perhaps too eager to make up for the mistake that led to the three-run homer, he came back firing fastballs to pitcher Alberto Arias. All four missed the strike zone.

“For a moment, I didn’t think he knew at the beginning that it was the pitcher up,” manager Manny Acta said. “To do that proved to me that he was probably disappointed to give up the home run and lost his focus.”

With that, Zimmermann’s day was done, an errant fastball away from being as good of an outing as it could have been.

“It went well until the two hitters before I came out,” Zimmermann said. “I thought I did pretty well all day, and now it looks like I struggled all day.”

But it would be too narrow a focus to pin the loss entirely on Zimmermann. The Nationals, a day after scoring 13 runs on 21 hits, couldn’t get a single runner home despite 11 hits. They loaded the bases in the sixth and seventh and couldn’t score.

“When we struggle offensively, it’s not necessarily getting hits and runners on base. It’s getting runners in,” Willingham said. “Today was one of those days where we got people on base, had [Astros starter Brian] Moehler on the ropes, but we couldn’t get a run.”

That has been a theme too often for the Nationals this season. It’s why the first half went so terribly and why the only meaning in the season’s final 75 games is to save some face.

“Most of those games we’ve lost, we’ve been right in there,” Acta said. “I feel we’re going to play a lot better right after the All-Star break.”

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