Jordan Zimmermann dazzles, but Washington Nationals lose to Florida Marlins, 1-0 in 10 innings

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 1:40 AM

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. - If Stephen Strasburg watched from the other side of the country, then Jordan Zimmermann's mastery Tuesday night provided all the proof he needed. Pitchers can improve while they recover from Tommy John surgery and then dominate when they return. In his second start back, Zimmermann was not just good as new. He was better than ever.

The promise of Zimmermann's start, the best of his career before or after his operation, stood in contrast to the Washington Nationals' 1-0, 10-inning loss to the Florida Marlins before 18,506 at Sun Life Stadium. Zimmermann's dazzling six innings devolved into a bizarre 10th inning that included a pair of controversial plays at home plate and snapped the Nationals' three-game winning streak.

In terms of what really matters to the Nationals, the bitter end - Nyjer Morgan's failed bid to knock the ball loose from Florida's catcher; Chad Tracy's single through the left side; Hanley Ramirez's slide under Ivan Rodriguez's mitt - paled compared with what Zimmermann accomplished in his second major league start this year.

He allowed the Marlins one hit and no walks over six scoreless innings, facing the minimum 18 batters and retiring the final 14. He set a new career high with nine strikeouts, eight of those coming in an utterly dominant span of 11 hitters. His final line looked like it was ripped from one of Strasburg's greatest box scores. It was, really, one of the best starts since baseball returned to Washington - no Nationals starter had ever faced the minimum for at least six innings.

"I felt great," Zimmermann said. "That's probably the best I've felt in a long time."

Through nine innings, the Nationals held the Marlins to one hit thanks to more excellence by the their bullpen, provided Tuesday by Joel Peralta and Tyler Clippard. But Zimmermann could not celebrate a win thanks to two plays in the 10th inning. The Nationals had their best chance at a run when Marlins reliever Clay Hensley walked Morgan and Alberto Gonzalez with one out.

Adam Kennedy chopped to second base, a potential double-play ball. After Emilio Bonifacio flipped to second, third base coach Pat Listach assumed Ramirez would try for the double play. He windmilled Morgan home, hoping Kennedy would beat Ramirez's throw to first and Morgan would score the go-ahead run.

Only there was no throw to first. Ramirez held the ball.

"I don't know why Hanley didn't decide to throw to first," Listach said afterward. "I still don't know why."

As Morgan sprinted home, he peeked to second and saw Ramirez holding the ball. He knew there would be a close play, and so he "kicked it up a notch," he said later. He had a split second to decide if he should slide or try to jar the ball loose from Brett Hayes - context be damned.

On Saturday, Morgan had barreled into St. Louis Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate despite the lack of a throw home. As Morgan hurtled home in the 10th Tuesday, Hayes holding the ball, that play no longer mattered to him.

"I got to hit him there," Morgan said. "I think if I try to slide there, I probably hurt myself. It's just a hard a play. Just baseball."

So Morgan bowled over Hayes, knocking him flat on his back with a vicious shoulder to Hayes's chest. Hayes held on to the ball. As the Marlins cleared the field, the inning over, Hayes stayed down on all fours. After the game, Marlins trainers examined Hayes's left shoulder.

"I would say it was clean if I hadn't seen what he had done earlier in the week," Tracy said. "I think he would have had a better chance to be safe if he was sliding. It fires you up when you see the way he's been playing the last week or so."

In the 10th, Tracy came up with a chance to beat the Nationals. With one out, Storen had allowed a broken-bat single by Ramirez and a walk to Gaby Sanchez. Tracy rolled a ball through the left side of the infield, and Ramirez screamed around third.

Left fielder Roger Bernadina had already thrown out one runner, his eighth outfield assist of the season, earlier in the game. He charged and rifled home, the strong throw sailing slightly to the right of home plate.

Rodriguez gathered the ball and dived for Ramirez, who hook-slid around the back of the dish. On the field, Rodriguez thought he had tagged Ramirez in time. Home plate umpire Jim Wolf called Ramirez safe. Ramirez spiked his helmet as the Marlins mobbed him. Rodriguez argued with Wolf, but later he watched a replay and realized the call was right.

"He was under me," Rodriguez said. "I just did the best that I could, but he beat me. It was a good call. I apologize about what I did out there. He made the right call."

The Nationals had to swallow their loss, but what Zimmermann's outing portended for the future made it easier. Zimmermann peppered the edges of the strike zone, throwing 55 of his 86 pitches for strikes. He zipped his fastball between 92 and 94 mph, just as hard as before his surgery. Zimmermann believes his change-up and curveball improved during his year-long rehab. Four of his strikeouts came on the curve, the other five on his fastball.

"It's huge," Zimmermann said. "I needed a good game after the first start I had there, to get back on track."

Only a leadoff double by Sanchez in the second inning prevented Zimmermann from a perfect night; Bernadina gunned Sanchez out trying to tag up and reach third one batter later.

The Nationals will limit Zimmermann, 24, to five or six innings and no more than 100 pitches for the rest of this season. Even throwing six innings was pushing it - he did not throw past the fifth in any of his 10 rehab starts.

"I felt good," Zimmermann said. "I think I could have went another inning. I was getting a little worn down. I felt good enough to go back out there, but they want to keep the pitch count down and protect me a little bit. I just to stick to the game plan."

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