On Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals copied the formula that gave them two victories to start this season — except for the important part. Their offense stalled. Their pitching, in this case seven stellar innings from Jordan Zimmermann, kept them in the game. They staggered the Chicago Cubs in the final innings. They just never completed the comeback.
In a 4-3 loss before an announced 31,973 at Wrigley Field, the Nationals nearly shocked the Cubs again after Adam LaRoche drilled a two-out home run in the top of the ninth, an offensive spasm after another punchless beginning. Even as right-hander Jeff Samardzija mowed them down, the Nationals had conditioned themselves to believe they would somehow win.
"All of us thought we had a chance," LaRoche said. "Anything can happen in baseball."
While cleanup hitter Michael Morse continued a rehabilitation stint in the minors after suffering a strained muscle in his back, the Nationals managed four hits and struck out eight times against Samardzija, a converted reliever who came within one out of a complete game in his sixth career start.
After Ian Desmond led off the game with a double, Samardzija retired 15 consecutive hitters. With the Cubs' three starting pitchers on the mound in the season-opening series, the Nationals scored five runs in 221/3 innings. During the first seven innings in their opening series, the Nationals went 9-for-72 (.125) with four walks.
"I think it's too early to worry about that," LaRoche said. "I think that's just more the way it's been going. It would be nice to score early, give our pitchers a little cushion."
They could find plenty of culprits. Ryan Zimmerman, robbed of two homers by the wind in the opener, went 0-for-4, dropping to 1-for-11. Chad Tracy, the off-the-bench hero in the Nationals' first two victories, struck out in his eighth-inning pinch-hit appearance. Jayson Werth went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a ninth-inning walk Sunday.
Werth carried confidence in his swing out of spring training, and his disappointing results haven't changed that. Werth drew three walks, including one Sunday with two outs in the ninth off Carlos Marmol that set up Xavier Nady's game-ending pop-up.
Werth narrowly missed his first hit of the season Sunday when shortstop Starlin Castro made a diving stop.
The offensive rut forced Zimmermann to face the same fate he did so many times last season — an outstanding start foiled by a lack of run support. The Nationals scored 3.2 runs per game when Zimmermann started last year. On Sunday, when he allowed two runs, only one earned, on six hits and no walks over seven innings, they managed only one until the ninth.
When Alfonso Soriano hit a broken-bat single to score Darwin Barney in the sixth, giving the Cubs a 2-1 lead, Zimmermann could only take the loss. Zimmermann is 12-19 in his career, but seven of his past 12 losses have come when he allowed two earned runs or fewer.
"It doesn't change my approach," Zimmermann said. "I'm just going to keep throwing strikes and try to get as many outs as possible."
When Zimmermann exited for a pinch hitter after only 80pitches, the Nationals trailed 2-1.
But the Nationals' bullpen1/3 scoreless innings the first two games, could not hold the deficit there. Ryan Mattheus and Sean Burnett combined to allow two runs in the eighth inning.
On Saturday, Mattheus had thrown 10 pitches in a dominant, 1-2-3 inning. On Sunday, he walked the first hitter he faced, David DeJesus, and gave up a one-out double to Castro.
The Nationals scored their lone run before LaRoche's homer thanks to another two-strike at-bat by Danny Espinosa.
With one out and Wilson Ramos on third in the sixth, he fell behind Samardzija 0-2 by flailing at the first two pitches.
Espinosa focused on a new approach with two strikes all spring. On Saturday, he fouled off four consecutive two-strike pitches before launching a crucial solo homer.
On Sunday, Espinosa dribbled away a fastball, took a ball and flicked away another of Samardzija's pitches. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Espinosa hooked a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Ramos without a throw home. The Nationals had tied it at 1.
They would not muster another base runner until the ninth, until it was too late, even for them. The Nationals clubhouse fell quiet afterward, the stereos off, the television screens blank.
"It's not the TV's fault we lost," Zimmerman said, letting out a small chuckle.
The players summoned the clubhouse manager to flip on the Masters. They watched golf, ate Italian food and prepared for their trip to New York, not at all worried about an offense that hadn't showed up yet, with one series down and 53 to go.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun