The crowd at Nationals Park roared louder than it had for two days as Ryan Zimmerman walked into the batter’s box Wednesday night. The Washington Nationals have conditioned their fans this season to expect magic, and Zimmerman represented the perfect man to summon it. He had not played for two days, downed by a balky back, and now here he was in the eighth inning, the Nationals trailing by a run and in need of life.
Zimmerman’s at-bat only led to more disappointment as the Philadelphia Phillies claimed a 3-2 victory. Zimmerman singled to put the tying run on base, but then ended the threat by getting caught stealing with two outs. The Nationals’ last gasp fell short, unable to make up for the three mistakes from Edwin Jackson the Phillies turned into home runs, two of them by Jimmy Rollins.
Sunday, the Nationals finished off a come-from-behind, 11-inning, 11-10 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers to finish a road swing 6-1. After having Monday off, they have lost two straight to a Phillies team that entered the series 161 / 2 games behind them in the National League East and staged a fire sale Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ve been a little flat since our Sunday in Milwaukee,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Guys are a little bit banged up from it. We’ll be all right tomorrow.”
In the ninth inning, the Nationals nearly stunned the Phillies. Danny Espinosa stung a 1-2 fastball from closer Jonathan Papelbon to the opposite field. Left fielder Domonic Brown rushed back to the fence. On a warmer night, the drive may have sneaked over the wall and into the Phillies’ bullpen. Wednesday, the wind blew in from left and the ball settled in Brown’s glove as he rubbed against the fence. Again, the charm of the Nationals’ season had skipped this night.
“I couldn’t have hit that ball any harder,” Espinosa said. “I thought I crushed it.”
The Nationals (61-42) had to settle for staying 21 / 2 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves, whose seven-game winning streak ended. Their offense slacked again without Zimmerman, scoring two runs one night after Cliff Lee and the Phillies bullpen shut them out.
Collectively, though, the Nationals wilted against Vance Worley. They grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning, taking advantage of singles by Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche and two miscues by the Phillies infield. They threatened again in the second inning before Jackson tried to score from second on Harper’s single and was cut down at the plate by Brown. After Chad Tracy led off the third with a single, Worley retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced.
“You look at today and we all got pitches to hit, and we didn’t do it for the most part,” LaRoche said. “We put a little something together early, and then I missed a bunch of pitches after the first at-bat. So, a frustrating day.”
Said Worley: “It seemed like every time I got ahead, I couldn’t put the guy away. I’m glad they got themselves out. If they want to get themselves out, that’s fine with me.”
Worley exited after seven innings, at which point Zimmerman’s presence appeared to give the Nationals life. Josh Lindblom, the reliever the Phillies acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade on Tuesday, jogged in with one out in the eighth to make his first appearance for Philadelphia. Zimmerman roped a 2-1 slider up the middle, past Rollins’s dive, for a single. In his career, he is 7 for 16 with two walks off the bench.
Lindblom blew away Michael Morse with a 93-mph fastball and then gave way to left-hander Jeremy Horst. With LaRoche at the plate, third base coach Bo Porter gave Zimmerman the sign to steal. Zimmerman had only attempted four steals all year, but the strategy of the moment called for him to run.
If Zimmerman had swiped the base, he would be in scoring position for LaRoche. If Erik Kratz threw him out, then LaRoche could lead off the ninth inning against the closer Papelbon.
“It was one of those calculated risks there,” Zimmerman said. “If I make it, it helps us. I wasn’t trying to get out, but if we get out, he’s leading off against a righty and has a lot better chance to do some damage.”
On Horst’s first move, Zimmerman bolted. Kratz threw a bullet, on the inside of the second base bag. “If he puts it anywhere other than where he puts it, I’m probably safe,” Zimmerman said. Instead, he was out. And then LaRoche popped out to start the ninth.
The Nationals would never take back the lead after Jackson, given a small margin for error, lost it. Rollins led off the game with a drive to the warning track in right, which Harper caught with his heels against the fence. In the third, he sent a fastball into the upper deck above the Nationals’ bullpen.
Rollins drilled another home run in the fifth, into the seats beyond the right field fence. The blast tied the game at 2, a score that did not last even one pitch. Jackson threw Nate Schierholtz a first-pitch, 94-mph fastball, and he slammed it over the right field fence, too. On two pitches, the Phillies took a 3-2 lead.
Rollins and Schierholtz had clobbered the pitches with such assuredness that Jackson thought he may have been tipping pitches. After he watched the film, he realized he had just thrown meatballs.
“Pretty much all three pitches were in the same spot,” Jackson said. “Just balls up in the zone that he could get under and get some air under. Throw it down, it could be different results. But you get balls up in the zone and they’re looking heaters, it’s not too hard for them to put them out.”
Michael Gonzalez provided a stabilizing relief appearance in the middle of the game. He relieved Jackson with Rollins on first base after a walk and two outs in the sixth inning. He retired four consecutive batters, striking out three of them, to keep the Nationals within one run. Ryan Mattheus bounced back from his three-homer disaster in Milwaukee with a 1-2-3 eighth inning.
The bullpen gave the Nationals’ offense a chance, an opportunity for more magic. For one night, it wasn’t there. “That,” Johnson said, “was a weird one.”