The Washington Nationals took a circuitous, sometimes maddening route to get there, but for the first time since 2005, the franchise so used to hardship at the all-star break can claim a .500 record at the symbolic midpoint of the season.
A 2-0 victory over Colorado on Sunday ensured that modest yet meaningful milestone, ended a three-game slide, Washington’s longest since the end of May, and stopped a five-game overall losing streak to the Rockies.
The triumph before 21,186 at Nationals Park included another quality start from Jordan Zimmermann and an insurance home run from Rick Ankiel, an eighth-inning defensive replacement in center field. And it salvaged the final game of the series.
“I like the direction we’re heading in,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “I think everybody in the organization is proud of the way we’re going. Every game we play, you can tell we can play with just about anybody.”
The Nationals (46-46) had done just that in the first two games against the Rockies, who arrived in the nation’s capital with a five-game losing streak, at the time the longest in the big leagues. But the results were a pair of one-run Washington losses that left players deflated and the inspired baseball they had managed in the previous month virtually an afterthought.
Thanks to Zimmermann’s command on Sunday, though, and just enough at the plate from their frequently punchless lineup, the Nationals were able to head into the four-day break remembering their last 11 wins, 10 by a single run or in extra innings, rather than wallowing in their recent downtown, each loss coming by one run.
Zimmermann went 61 / 3 innings. He gave up four hits and walked none with six strikeouts. It was his 12th quality start, including a club-record 11 in a row, in his last 13 outings. He lowered his ERA to 2.66 and threw 88 pitches, 64 for strikes, before departing with a 1-0 lead.
The bullpen, which had been pressed into unexpectedly long service during this series, made it stand, with Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen wrapping up Zimmermann’s sixth win of the season. That trio permitted three base runners.
Clippard, the team’s lone all-star representative, logged his major-league best 23rd hold and Storen saved his 23rd game in 26 chances.
Normally used to protecting the slimmest possible lead, Storen instead had an extra run on his side when he entered in the ninth thanks to Ankiel’s third home run of the season. It came with one out in the eighth on a 1-1 slider from left-handed reliever Matt Reynolds. The ball landed just above the wall in right center that displays the oversized curly “W” logo.
The Nationals had registered their first run in the sixth when Roger Bernadina’s broken-bat single to right scored Ian Desmond, who led off the inning with a single and advanced to second courtesy of Zimmermann’s well-placed sacrifice bunt.
The Rockies (43-48), meantime, were having difficulty trying to solve Zimmermann, whose slider was particularly nasty on a warm afternoon that was not as humid as recent days. With Zimmermann’s fastball reaching the mid-90s as well, Colorado at times looked overmatched. The Nos. 4, 5 and 6 hitters — Troy Tulowitzki, Seth Smith and Cole Garner — went 0 for 7 against the pitching phenom who preceded Stephen Strasburg to Washington. (They finished the game 1 for 12.)
Zimmermann retired 12 hitters in a row, and 13 of 14, from the first to the fifth innings. Garner struck out twice swinging against Zimmermann, and all-star shortstop Tulowitzki (17 HRs, 57 RBI entering Sunday) failed to get the ball out of the infield in three at-bats.
Zimmermann did get himself into a bit of a potential trouble when he walked starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin to lead off the sixth inning. But facing Ryan Spilborghs one batter later, Zimmermann induced a grounder to Desmond, who started a double play by flipping to Danny Espinosa. The second baseman then whirled and delivered a strike to Michael Morse.
Todd Helton led off the seventh with a single against Zimmermann, and after the Nationals’ hard-throwing right-hander got Tulowitzki to pop out to second, his afternoon was complete.
Mattheus breezed through two batters to finish the inning, and Clippard labored a bit in the eighth before Storen did the rest.
“It’s a big win for the team,” Zimmermann said. “We started off pretty slow this year, and now we got back to .500, and I think we’ve got good momentum going in the second half.”