- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

Jordan Zimmermann should get plenty more opportunities to face Alfonso Soriano in the future. The pitcher figures to be a member of the Washington Nationals’ rotation for years to come, and Soriano remains property of the Chicago Cubs through 2014.

And chances are, Zimmermann will get the best of Soriano more often than not because good pitching usually beats good hitting. Sure enough, Washington’s rookie right-hander struck out Chicago’s slugger in their first two encounters Saturday.

But with the game on the line in the sixth inning, Soriano got the best of Zimmermann. And because of it, the Cubs celebrated a 6-5 victory, while Zimmermann tried to grasp how he lost after pitching so well.

“That’s a tough one,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “But it happened to [Greg] Maddux and [Steve] Avery and [John] Smoltz and all them guys, too. They had to go through it, and our guys are having to go through it.”

Soriano’s three-run blast proved the difference between the Nationals’ first victory of the second half and Riggleman’s third straight loss since taking over.

Washington (26-64) stormed out of the gates to score twice in the first and twice more in the second off Cubs starter Randy Wells. But after amassing six hits during those rallies, the Nationals managed only three singles and a double the rest of the way while squandering a couple of late opportunities in exasperating fashion.

They loaded the bases with one out in both the seventh and eighth innings, each time bringing the bipartisan crowd to its feet. Yet they brought just one of those six baserunners home, on Ryan Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly in the eighth.

In the end, all of that resulted in merely another narrow loss for Washington.

“Good things are going to happen for these guys,” Riggleman said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be tomorrow or three days from now - four, five, who knows? Maybe it’s next week. We thought we were going to make it happen tonight. But it’s going to happen. I’m not going to quit, and nobody in there better quit.”

For all the late drama, Saturday’s game hinged on the sixth-inning confrontation between Zimmermann and Soriano, whose careers will be forever linked.

When the Nationals chose to let Soriano walk as a free agent following the 2006 season, they did so knowing they would be compensated with two draft picks. The first of those picks turned into left-hander Josh Smoker, who is battling his way back from shoulder surgery. The second of those picks, though, turned into Zimmermann, who was a little-known college pitcher from Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Soriano has yet to live up to his eight-year, $136 million contract and had been homerless in 120 at-bats before he struck Saturday. Zimmermann has blossomed into Washington’s top pitching prospect and a potential cornerstone for years to come.

For five innings Saturday, the 23-year-old played the part, blowing away Chicago’s hitters with a mid-90s fastball and pumping pitches through the strike zone at a 74 percent rate.

But that all came to a head during the fateful sixth. Needing to come up big to get out of a first-and-third jam, Zimmermann blew three pitches past slumping right fielder Milton Bradley and breathed a sigh of relief. Then the entire game turned on one play: a first-pitch slider to Soriano that wound up clearing the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center.

“I hope it’s over,” Soriano said of his homerless streak, which had stretched to June 7.

Just like that, the Cubs had a 5-4 lead.

“I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting out of the inning if I could get a ground ball or something,” Zimmermann said. “But I just left a slider over the middle, and he hit it good.”

At that point, the rookie could only hope to get the best of Soriano the next time these two cross paths.

“That’s how you become a good big league pitcher - by facing the best,” Zimmermann said. “I want to go out there against the best every time and see how I fare. I mean, I did well against Soriano pretty much the whole game. It’s just one mistake, and he looks like he got the best of me.”

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