Nationals vs. Giants: Jordan Zimmermann, Washington open series by beating Tim Lincecum

The distance between the Washington Nationals and the rest of the National League did not come into focus Tuesday night, because that kind of thing takes longer than one game to surmise. But that gap, at the moment, surely exists. What other conclusion is there? The San Francisco Giants carried the league’s second-best record into Nationals Park and dropped a two-time Cy Young winner on the mound. Four innings in, the Nationals led by eight runs.

The Nationals’ 9-3 thumping of the Giants added further validation to their status, in the standings, as the best team in the National League. Their surging offense battered right-hander Tim Lincecum over 31 / 3 innings, scoring eight runs and lashing nine hits, the biggest among them a two-run homer by all-star shortstop Ian Desmond. Jordan Zimmermann did not let the Giants breathe for six innings, holding them to two runs (one earned) with his relentless mix of fastballs and sliders in the strike zone.

The Nationals are at least two games clear of every National League team and at least 31 / 2 games ahead of every team in their in division. They are perhaps the best Washington baseball team in 80 years. Their recent offensive performance hinted that what comes next may top what’s already happened.

“If they keep hitting the way they’ve been hitting,” Zimmermann said, “I don’t see why we can’t run away with this thing in the second half.”

The Nationals have scored at least five runs in each of their past seven games, a 5-2 stretch, and in five of them they’ve scored at least eight. Tuesday night, continuing a ragged season that has left him with a 6.08 ERA, Lincecum faced 21 Nationals batters, and 11 of them reached base. Every Nationals starter except Jesus Flores got a hit.

“When the middle of the lineup starts swinging the bat like it’s capable of doing, the rest of the guys are starting to jell,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That really puts the icing on the cake and takes the pressure off everybody in the lineup. Everybody can trust each other in the lineup and don’t have to do too much. Anybody in our lineup, especially our all-star shortstop, they’re just swinging the heck out of it. But we’re not doing anything I didn’t think we were capable of doing.”

Ryan Zimmerman has turned back into a star after a cortisone shot to his aching shoulder. Michael Morse knocked off the rust comes with missing 50 games. Jayson Werth could return within a month. They held on to first place as 15 players hit the disabled list, thanks to the best pitching staff in baseball, and now the team they envisioned is coming together.

“I mean, we’ve weathered a pretty rough storm,” Johnson said. “The schedule and who we play come the second half doesn’t look that daunting to me.”

Danny Espinosa went 3 for 4 with a double off the tippy-top of the center field fence, all three hits from the left side of the plate. Espinosa was hitting .190 as a lefty entering Tuesday, but he was feeling better and Johnson had seen improvement. The three hits gave Espinosa tangible proof.

“That, to me, was by far the most exciting thing for me to see in the game today,” Johnson said.

Tuesday afternoon, the Nationals paraded their three all-stars before the assembled press and continued their campaign to add a fourth National, Bryce Harper, to the annual showcase. They did not send one of their two all-star pitchers to the mound, only the one who leads their staff in ERA, innings pitched and most uniform facial expression.

Zimmermann remained one of two major league pitchers, along with San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong, who have been in a rotation all season and pitched at least six innings and allowed four or fewer runs in every start. He is not as dominant as Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, his all-star rotation mates, but he has a lower ERA (2.70) than either and is the only Nationals starter with more than 100 innings.

“He’s obviously the bulldog of our staff,” Desmond said.

For the second straight start, Zimmermann also received the rare treat of run support. Zimmermann helped the attack with an RBI double to the right field corner in the second, which followed an RBI double by Espinosa. As Zimmermann strolled into second, Nationals’ pitchers had a .214 batting average, the best in the league.

“I’m getting tired of our pitchers hitting,” Desmond said. “They’re making us look bad.”

The Nationals turned a strong start into a blowout in the third. With great frequency, they sent lasers to every corner of the ballpark. With two outs and Adam LaRoche on second after a double, Desmond, playing his first home game after making the all-star team, tattooed a hanging curveball deep over the left field fence to make it 5-0.

With one out in the fourth, Steve Lombardozzi walked. Harper stayed back just long enough on Lincecum’s first-pitch change-up, lacing it down the first base line for an RBI double. Zimmerman drew another walk to load the bases, and Giants Manager Bruce Bochy lifted Lincecum. Ten of the final 16 batters who faced Lincecum reached base.

Morse greeted reliever George Kontos by falling behind 0-2, swinging and missing at two sliders. Kontos tried one more, and Morse ripped it back up the middle. The two-run single gave Morse 18 hits and eight RBI in a span of 43 at-bats. It also ended the competitive portion of the game.

Only an 85-minute rain delay impeded the Nationals’ demolition of the Giants. The Giants will still throw Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain at the Nationals, two pitchers capable of shutting down any lineup. But on July 4 in the nation’s capital, the home team will wake up as the best team in the National League.

They will come to the park around dawn to prepare for the first 11 a.m. game since baseball returned to Washington. Because of the quick turnaround, Espinosa said, “you got to get home and sleep as fast as you can.” And maybe dream a little, too.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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