Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija figured to be a tough matchup for the Nationals on Friday night. The 6-foot-5 right-hander had a strong recent history against Washington, compiling a 1.15 ERA with 16 strikeouts in two starts in 2012 – plus Bryce Harper was out of the lineup with a toe injury.
Ian Desmond had other designs. He entered the game a lifetime 5-for-10 with a pair of doubles against Samardzija, the only batter in the Nationals lineup with more than two career hits against the pitcher nicknamed “Shark” by his college teammates at Notre Dame. Desmond proved his history of head-to-head success was no fluke.
Batting fifth, the Nationals All-Star shortstop singled in his first at-bat and later scored on a two-out, two-run double by Kurt Suzuki that gave Washington an early 2-1 lead. He homered in his second trip to the plate, a two-run blast to left that snapped a 2-2 tie. He later gave the Nats a 5-2 advantage, driving home Ryan Zimmerman with a two-out double in the fifth, and scored one batter later on a two-run double by Danny Espinosa, completing the scoring for the Nats in a 7-3 victory.
Three trips to the plate against Samardzija, three hits, three runs batted in and three runs scored. Combined with their previous meetings, Desmond is now 8-for-13 with three doubles and a home run against the Cubs ace, good for a slash line of .615/.615/1.077.
Desmond’s homer, his fifth of the season, carried another impressive distinction. All five of his long balls have given Washington the lead, and the Nats are 5-0 when Desmond goes deep.
Needing a triple to complete the cycle, Desmond grounded to third base against reliever Shawn Camp leading off the bottom of the eighth inning. Although disappointed in the result, Desmond offered up some humor to put everything into perspective.
“Yeah. But, I mean, third base is a long ways away,” he said.
Looking purely at the history of the matchup, not much favored the Nationals heading into Wednesday’s tilt with the Detroit Tigers. The franchise had never beaten Detroit since moving to D.C., going 0-6 over a pair on Interleague matchups since 2005. The Nationals also had never handed opposing starter Anibal Sanchez a loss in his 19 career starts against them.
But the Nationals had Jordan Zimmermann. And, as we’ve begun to learn this season, sometimes that’s enough to throw history out the window.
Behind seven strong innings from their emerging ace, the Nationals played great defense and found just enough timely hitting to pull out a 3-1 win. The victory also marked something of a first for Zimmermann, who took over the top spot in the National League with his sixth of the season. The righty lowered his ERA to just 1.59, trailing only Matt Harvey of the Mets.
Meanwhile, Bryce Harper became the first National to reach double digits in home runs, doing so before any of his teammates even hit their fifth of the season. His 10th blast, a no-doubter to right-center off Sanchez in the fifth inning, tied him with John Buck for second in the National League and provided the game’s final margin.
Wednesday night’s contest even included the proverbial “thing you’ve never seen before at the ballpark,” an idiom often used in baseball. The less-than-fleet-footed Adam LaRoche made an aggressive play to tag from second base on a fly ball to right field with one out in the fourth inning. Torii Hunter’s throw came in just as LaRoche went into his slide, but glanced off the runner’s hand, past third baseman Miguel Cabrera and into the photographer’s well next to the Tigers dugout, where it hit a camera and ricocheted back out onto the field. As the ball would have gone out of play, third base umpire Greg Gibson awarded LaRoche home plate for what would turn out to be the game-winning run.
And so, even though some previous trends suggested a victory was unlikely, the Nationals upheld another trend that D.C. baseball fans might find pleasantly surprising. With the win, Washington improved to 22-15 in Interleague play since the beginning of the 2011 season, the best mark in the National League over that span. The Nationals also are now 4-0 against the American League this season, including a three-game sweep of the White Sox back in April. And at three games over .500 for the first time since entering play at 10-7 on April 21, they are just two games behind what is hopefully the next “first” on the list.
The Washington Nationals wish to announce that all fans who purchased tickets for Tuesday night’s postponed game with the Detroit Tigers will be guaranteed their same seats for Thursday’s scheduled 4:05 p.m. makeup game, or will retain the option to exchange their tickets – as they have in the past – for any remaining regular or value home game during the 2013 season, subject to availability. Due to increased attendance at Nationals Park, “rain check” ticket holders are encouraged to contact the Nationals ticket office by phone or online to better ensure seating for those games. The Nationals apologize for any inconvenience.
Tickets for Tuesday’s game may be exchanged at the Nationals Park Box Office for any Regular or Value game during the 2013 regular season. Exchanged tickets will be issued from available inventory in the closest pricing category of equal or lesser value to the original seats.* For more information on exchanging tickets purchased through nationals.com or the Nationals telephone charge line, please call 888.632.NATS(6287).
On game days, the Nationals Park Box Office is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. until 30 minutes after the end of the game, and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. until 30 minutes after the end of the game. Box office hours on non-game days are Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
*Subject to availability. Available game dates subject to change.
Pittsburgh is a classic American sports town, full of multi-generational, die-hard fans. While the football and hockey teams have enjoyed more recent success than the Pirates, the bloodlines connecting each sport run deep through the town. With a proud history from Honus Wagner and Ralph Kiner to Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, baseball has had a home in the Steel City since the late 1800s, and now calls beautiful PNC Park – with a picturesque, skyline view of downtown across the river – its home.
Perhaps there is something to the solidarity of the yellow and black jerseys worn by each team – the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins – or the fact that all play their games within close proximity, as the athletic venues each now reside in the same riverfront neighborhood. But even the fact that the Pirates own the longest stretch of consecutive losing seasons in any professional sport (20 and counting, entering the 2013 campaign) isn’t enough to dampen enthusiasm, or keep the fans away.
There are nice touches at the ballpark that are uniquely Pittsburgh as well. Their version of the Racing Presidents (who took part in the festivities this weekend) are the Pierogies, a local food staple of the eastern Europeans who first settled the city. After victories, they “raise the Jolly Roger,” hoisting a Pirate flag above the ballpark. And, up in the press box, you’ll find Rick, who has worked for the club for 10 years. He owns five different classic Pirates jerseys, and sports whichever one matches best with what the team on the field dons that particular game, along with his throwback handlebar moustache.
But for all the tradition, spectators at PNC Park were treated, for lack of a better word, to something they had never heard before this weekend. As Washington plated six runs in the series-winning victory on Sunday, a chant rose up from a select few in the upper bowl.
Those who have attended a Nationals game in D.C. over the past few years have no doubt become accustomed to, or perhaps even joined in on the rallying cry of “N-A-T-S Nats Nats Nats” that accompanies each score by the hometown nine. But hearing it happen on the road, drawing the ire of the hometown fans, was signified something of a first. It only highlighted just how many red jerseys, t-shirts and Curly W’s were on display in western Pennsylvania this weekend.
The Pirates had averaged just 20,616 fans through their first 12 openings of the season, but saw more than 80,000 spectators over the three-game set, despite playing against a Penguins home playoff game Friday night and the Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday morning. Saturday’s contest drew 29,975, the largest crowd since Opening Day, but a decent percentage of those in attendance sported red, not the hometown yellow and black.
Two of those who made the trek included Burt and Lynn, who patrolled the grounds outside the park several hours before first pitch on Friday afternoon. Lynn sported her Ross Detwiler jersey T-shirt in support of his start that night, and the two of them took in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. It marked their first trip to Pittsburgh, and they were hardly alone.
The Nationals already set April attendance records at home, drawing over a half-million fans in the season’s opening month for the first time. But that trend has extended beyond the banks of the Anacostia, where the likes of Burt and Lynn have joined a growing group of Nationals fans bringing the comforts of the ever-growing home field advantage on the road.
A quick glance at the final box score may suggest that Washington enjoyed a rather comfortable victory in its rubber match triumph on Sunday. But the series finale in Pittsburgh began about as poorly as one could possibly draw it up for the Nationals. They went three up, three down in the top of the first, culminating in Bryce Harper’s check swing strikeout, after which he was ejected by third base umpire and crew chief John Hirschbeck.
The bottom of the first didn’t get any better. Starling Marte hit Gio Gonzalez’s first pitch over the wall, Jordy Mercer followed with a double, and Ryan Zimmerman’s throw to first on a grounder by Andrew McCutchen hit the runner in the back. After a walk to Gaby Sanchez, the bases were loaded with nobody out.
The afternoon could well have been over right there. But Gonzalez locked in and fanned Russell Martin swinging, then Michael McKenry looking. With two outs, Brandon Inge sent a grounder past Gonzalez up the middle, but a rangy play and a strong throw across his body by Ian Desmond beat the runner to first, and the Nationals escaped with just the single run of damage.
“It just felt like the momentum shifted,” said Gonzalez after his first-inning Houdini act. “A younger me would have probably spiraled out of control, trying to be too much, trying to do too much.”
Instead, the Nationals got that run back immediately, as Zimmerman drew a leadoff walk to start the second inning, moved to third on Adam LaRoche’s double and scored on Danny Espinosa’s sac fly deep to center field, knotting the game at 1-1. The game remained deadlocked until Espinosa’s next at-bat, when he got into a two-out, two-strike hanging curveball from Wandy Rodriguez and punished it deep into the left field seats for a two-run shot, putting Washington ahead for good.
“He didn’t really try to crush it, he just met it,” said Davey Johnson of Espinosa’s swing. “Of course, he’s so strong, it went a long way.”
In a sense, that approach has been emblematic of the Nationals in general this year, where they may have pressed too much out of the gates. They are such a strong team that simply meeting the challenges in front of them should yield positive results.
The Pirates clawed back within a run in the sixth, but again Gonzalez stranded a big runner, leaving Martin at third base as the potential tying run. The start – six innings of two-run ball with two walks and five strikeouts – was much more like the Gonzalez Nationals fans got to know last year, when he won 21 games.
“He was the old Gio,” said Johnson after the game. “I hadn’t seen that grin in a long time.”
The contest remained a one-run game until late, when Washington got some fitting redemption for the first-inning antics. With one out and Roger Bernadina at second base, the Pirates elected to walk LaRoche to get to Tyler Moore, who had gone down looking three times in as many trips. Moore fell behind 1-2, then checked his swing at a pitch out of the zone, with the home side appealing down to first base umpire Jim Reynolds, who signaled no swing. Moore annihilated the next pitch to left field for a three-run bomb to put the game out of reach.
“It fires you up a little bit,” said Moore of the intentional walk ahead of him, before quickly couching his statement. “But you can’t blame them. I would have done the same thing. LaRoche was swinging a good bat and I was struggling early.”
There have been a number of games so far this season where an early miscue or unfortunate turn would alter the mood, portending a feeling of, “Here we go again.” Sunday’s contest in Pittsburgh provided the most amount of early trouble to overcome in any victory thus far in the young season. Those feelings crept up upon Harper’s ejection, grew stronger after Marte’s leadoff home run, and were at full boil with the bases loaded and no outs in the first.
But just as it turned around a road trip that saw the club lose the first two games at rival Atlanta, Washington rebounded Sunday to make it four wins in five days to close the trip, mostly low-scoring, tightly-played affairs that leaned on the good pitching and solid defensive foundation upon which this roster was constructed. If the final game of the trip does mark a turning point in the campaign, it may also well serve as a microcosm of the season as a whole. After struggling from the outset and encountering some adversity, cooler heads prevailed on the way to victory.
Over the course of a 162-game season, you have to find any number of different ways to win games to have a successful year. While the Nationals never really came up with the big hit they were looking for on Saturday, they nonetheless discovered a new and creative way to snag a crucial 5-4 road victory over the Pirates, setting them up for a possible series win to close the road trip.
After not hitting a sacrifice fly since April 17 – a span of 16 games – Washington hit three on Saturday, accounting for 60 percent of its scoring. The third and final one proved to be the difference, and was set up by perhaps the unlikeliest turn of events possible, a double-steal from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. Not only was it the first stolen base for either player this season, but it was the first time Zimmerman had ever stolen third in his career. Both got such a good jump off Pirates reliever Tony Watson that catcher Russell Martin could not even get a throw off.
“I would have thought those were the last two guys that were going to steal,” said Tyler Moore, who apparently wasn’t alone in that assessment, and who delivered the third and final sacrifice fly moments later to plate Zimmerman with winning run. “But they got it done. That was huge. Trent (Jewett) had the guts to send them, and it ended up winning us the ballgame.”
Sometimes that’s exactly what a team needs to get going. Other than Wilson Ramos’s big two-run single that tied the game in the sixth, the Nationals did not have a hit in their other 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But they drew six walks and were thrice hit by pitches to go along with their six base hits, putting constant pressure on the Pittsburgh pitching staff. They had a runner in scoring position in every inning after the first, and middle-of-the-order stalwarts Zimmerman and LaRoche each reached base four times. There were signs of better at-bats, the kind of patient, grind-it-out style that the team showed in its victories early in the season.
So to what should one attribute the change in approach? For one, Davey Johnson held a team meeting, something he does not do often, before the game. Ironically, he did the exact same thing during a lull in the 2012 season, before the 31st game (also started by Stephen Strasburg), against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Not so ironically, the result was the same. The 2012 edition went on to win its next three games and 11 of 17 to follow.
“That’s how you win Manager of the Year right there,” joked Ian Desmond as the media entered the clubhouse after the game, referring to the honor bestowed upon Johnson last year.
Just how much correlation exists in the cause and effect between the meeting and the team’s performance is open to debate. But it’s hard to argue with the results.
Washington Nationals (15-15) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (17-12)
RHP Stephen Strasburg (1-4, 3.13) vs. LHP Jeff Locke (3-1, 2.83)
The Nationals look to get back to their winning ways with Stephen Strasburg on the hill following last night’s series-opening defeat. Washington has not been more than a game above or below .500 since being 13-11 exactly one week ago.
1. Espinosa 2B
2. Desmond SS
3. Harper LF
4. Zimmerman 3B
5. LaRoche 1B
6. Moore RF
7. Ramos C
8. Bernadina CF
9. Strasburg RHP
Ian Desmond (17), Danny Espinosa (9) and Steve Lombardozzi (2) have combined on 28 extra-base hits, tops among MLB middle-infield units. Philadelphia and Colorado are tied for second with 23 apiece.
While the Nationals welcomed Ryan Zimmerman (DL, hamstring) back into the lineup on Friday, it is worth noting that Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Denard Span and Wilson Ramos have all missed time this season while dealing with injury or illness. Davey Johnson was last able to pen a lineup that included his standard starting eight (LaRoche 1B, Espinosa 2B, Desmond SS, Zimmerman 3B, Harper LF, Span CF, Werth RF, Ramos/Suzuki C) on Sunday, April 14. Washington’s record this season with Johnson’s standard starting eight is 6-4.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Using their opponent’s record on the date of the game, the Nationals have played a team sporting a .500-or-better record in 25 of 30 games this season. The five exceptions all came against the Marlins, not including the Fish’s 0-0 record on Opening Day.
As Greg Maddux so astutely pointed out to Tom Glavine in the hilarious Nike ad from the late ’90s, chicks dig the long ball. In fact, so does every baseball fan and writer, as home runs are, incidentally, the loudest happening on a baseball field. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that Justin Upton and the hard-swinging Atlanta Braves garnered many of the season’s early headlines.
While the Nationals have plenty of potential for pop in their own lineup, there is no denying that the pitching will lead them as far as they go this season. So it was only fitting that, after an 8-1 loss which left their final April record at just 13-14, Washington quietly rebounded with a pair of dominant pitching performances to earn a four-game split of a tough road series in Atlanta.
Following Jordan Zimmermann’s beauty on Wednesday, veteran Dan Haren shredded his way through the Braves lineup with stunning efficiency on Thursday, allowing just a solo home run over eight innings.
At one point, Nationals pitchers had retired 28 straight Atlanta hitters, one better than the equivalent of a perfect game over the two-day stretch. They ran up an 18-inning scoreless streak as well, and have allowed just one run over their last 21 frames entering this weekend’s series in Pittsburgh.
It was, perhaps, a bit ironic that on the day that Upton was honored with the National League Player of the Month – and Evan Gattis the NL Rookie of the Month – it was the rival Nationals bullying their way to another big road win, sucking the air out of the Turner Field crowd.
Even more so, the Nationals were able to jump on nemesis Kris Medlen early for the only three runs they would need. They didn’t do it by leaving the ballpark, but rather thanks to a pair of doubles by the pesky, opportunistic Denard Span, who scored the game’s first run, then scooted a ball down the third base line to plate the rest of the Washington scoring an inning later.
And so, quietly, the Nationals have put a lackluster April behind them, and are just 2.5 games back of first place in the first week of May. With the ever-improving Ross Detwiler set to take the hill Friday night, Washington looks to carry that momentum, led by their pitching, into the Steel City.
A quick look at Jordan Zimmermann’s 2013 season so far shows that he has been, unequivocally, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball. His 1.64 ERA (sixth), five wins (tied-second), .168 batting average against (fourth) and 0.75 WHIP (second) all rank among the top marks in the Major Leagues. Somehow, even considering all of that, he may still be underrated.
Dating back to his final inning of work on April 21 in New York, the Wisconsin native has shut out opponents over his last 18 frames. In his last two starts, against the dangerous lineups of the Reds and Braves, he has allowed just three hits and a walk in 17 innings of work.
The reason for Zimmermann’s success is no secret. He comes right after hitters with all four of his featured pitches – his fastball, slider, curveball and changeup – and attacks the strike zone. In fact, he has thrown at least 60 strikes in all but one of his starts. The lone exception? His first career shutout, a one-hitter in which he needed only 91 pitches (59 of them strikes) to silence the Reds bats.
“I’m just getting ahead of guys, throwing strikes, making them hit my pitch,” Zimmermann said after his latest gem in Atlanta. “Last year, I’d fall behind and have to battle to get back to even and ahead in the count…this year, so far, I’ve stayed in attack mode and gone right after hitters.”
Zimmermann’s ability to control the strike zone is reflected in his ever-improving strikeout-to-walk rate, which sits at 3.83 so far this season, up from 3.56 last season. His career mark of 3.53 would rank right alongside Zack Greinke in the top 20 all-time among pitchers with 1,000 or more innings thrown. While Zimmermann has only tossed just over half that total (523.1 after Wednesday’s shutout of the Braves), the 26-year-old shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Last season, Zimmermann was a model of consistency, throwing at least six innings in each of his first 21 starts. But he never made it past the seventh in any of those outings, throwing exactly six frames 12 times. Through six starts this season, the righty has finished eight or more innings three times already, including a pair of complete games.
“I think that’s just experience,” said Davey Johnson of Zimmermann’s improvement in efficiency. “He’s getting more comfortable with the league, the ballparks, the umpires, the mounds, the hitters and how they approach him.”
And while Zimmermann remains as calm and collected as ever on the mound, the competitive engine within him – the one fans got a glimpse of in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the NLDS last year – churns as strong as ever.
“He’s got that calm demeanor,” explained Johnson. “But there’s a big fire going on inside him.”
While Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and the Nationals were busy shutting down the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night, one of their fellow teammates took a big step forward as well.
Batting third and wearing No. 33 for the High-A Potomac Nationals, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman saw an assortment of fastballs, sliders and change-ups from Carolina Mudcats starter Joseph Colon in three at bats.
Zimmerman told the media contingent in the Potomac clubhouse that it was good to face live pitching again and that, “everything went great. (It was) good to get back out there. Everything felt fine.”
Playing in front of a supportive crowd of 3,032, Zimmerman grounded out to short in his first at-bat, testing the tight hamstring that landed him on the 15-day disabled list by running hard through the bag. He flied out to deep right-center in the fourth inning, then reached safely on a Carolina Mudcats fielding error in the sixth.
Defensively, the former Gold Glove Award winner made three successful fielding plays in six innings, including an excellent play on a sacrifice bunt attempt. He charged hard to catch the ball in the air and whipped a sidearm throw to first to nearly double off the base runner.
“My arm feels great and my hammy (hamstring) feels great,” Zimmerman said. “Now it’s just time to get back up there and get going.”
Zimmerman said he would work out on Thursday, likely at Nationals Park, before flying to Pittsburgh to join his teammates as they take on the Pirates over the weekend. Despite being held out for the required 15 days, he told reporters he started working out after just five days of rest and never had any residual hamstring issues.