By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 11:16 PM
After their high school-style fielding practice Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals gathered at the pitching mound around Manager Jim Riggleman. Before batting practice, Riggleman offered a scowling, finger-waving, 10-minute reminder that a lack of effort, even in games that lack relevance, will not be tolerated. "We needed some of that," one Nationals player said.
The Nationals waited until the final moments of their 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs, but they finally showed the effort their manager demanded. The Nationals nearly erased eight lifeless innings with a miraculous ninth, but Ryan Zimmerman's would-be walk-off home run fell a few steps short of the warning track in right field and into Kosuke Fukudome's glove. Rather than celebrate an unreal comeback, the Nationals had to swallow their third straight loss and 12th in 16 games.
Before 18,250 at Nationals Park, the Nationals at least created a clear line between Tuesday night and their previous two clunkers. They had been outscored 20-2 over 26 innings before the ninth inning, at which point they showed they're at least not going to roll over.
"I got on them a little bit last night after the game," Riggleman said, referring to Monday's 9-1 loss to the Cubs. "I got on them pretty hard. I just felt like, all right, that's over. Let's go play baseball. Let's play it all out. That's why you signed up. Let's finish it out."
In the ninth, the Nationals had to mount their charge against closer Carlos Marmol, whose pitches look to hitters like aspirin tablets. Marmol relies on a low-80s slider that darts like a balloon losing helium, but he keeps in reserve a 95-mph hour fastball. Before last night he induced whiffs on 42.1 percent of the swings against him, the best in baseball.
In the eighth, Marmol had showed how devilish he can be against Ian Desmond. Desmond saw three pitches. He took one strike and could not check his swing at the next two. His revised plan afterward: "Look for a ball up in the zone and cross your fingers."
In the ninth, though, the Nationals solved him with persistent at-bats. Michael Morse walked, Alberto Gonzalez singled and Willie Harris walked, all with one out. Nyjer Morgan struck out on three pitches, which brought Adam Kennedy to the plate.
Marmol started Kennedy with a slider outside. "He threw ball one," Kennedy said. "I'm pretty much his guy at that point." With two outs, Kennedy knew Marmol did not want to walk him to face Zimmerman, who was on-deck. The circumstance robbed Marmol of his best weapon, and Kennedy could guess fastball. When Marmol gave him one, Kennedy laced a double to right, scoring all three runners and bringing to the plate the man every remaining fan in the place wanted to see.
"Anytime Zim comes up to the plate in a situation like that," Desmond said, "you always think he's going to get a hit."
Zimmerman fell behind 1-2, flailing at one of Marmol's sliders that darted off the edge of the plate. ("It's not like you can look slider and foul off the fastball," Zimmerman said.) Zimmerman somehow held his bat back on a similar pitch, then fended off the 2-2 pitch by a hair.
Zimmerman finally got a pitch to hit, and he drilled it to right. He knew it would not be a home run, but he also knew he had hit it well. In the dugout, starter John Lannan thought it may land - "he put a jolt into the ball," Lannan said. On second base, Kennedy saw the Cubs outfielders were playing deep and the ball would have to clang off the fence to be a hit.
It didn't. The ball settled into Fukudome's glove for the final out, but the Nationals "at least showed a little life," Desmond said.
"You take a little bit from it," Kennedy said. "You'd still like to get the win."
Riggleman felt "the same effort was there the whole game," but until the ninth the Cubs had taken advantage of two mistakes from John Lannan while Carlos Zambrano, only recently promoted back to the starting rotation from the bullpen, dazzled.
Against Zambrano, the Nationals struck out eight times while grounding into two double plays in 7 1/3 innings. Lannan, meantime, was a tick off in the second inning, something he cannot afford to be. The Cubs clubbed two singles before former National Alfonso Soriano blasted Lannan's 0-1 slider to left for a three-run home run, which gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead.
After Zimmerman drove in Gonzalez with a single for the Nationals' first run, Lannan's second mistake gave Zambrano breathing room. In the fourth, Soriano stood on first base because of Gonzalez's throwing error. Tyler Colvin launched the first pitch he saw, another slider, over the scoreboard to put the Cubs up 5-1.
The Nationals bullpen - Miguel Batista, Collin Balester and Craig Stammen - pitched four one-hit, shutout innings to give the Nationals a chance. The Nationals did not seal a victory, but the at least heeded their manager's imperative.
"Finish out the season strong," Zimmerman said. "Take these last five weeks and get as much out of it as you can. He was just kind of reminding to not give anything away and fight for the last five weeks."