Nationals lose to Braves on Jason Heyward single after Ryan Zimmerman and Jim Riggleman are ejected

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010; 12:23 AM

The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves occupy divergent ends of baseball's August spectrum, and the final scene Wednesday night provided ample evidence.

The Braves, who earlier in the day had traded for a veteran, slugging first baseman, mobbed 21-year-old rookie Jason Heyward beside first base and celebrated a victory that kept them in first place. The Nationals, who earlier in the day called up their catcher of their future, skulked off without their best player and bemoaned a painful loss that changed nothing.

One inning after Ryan Zimmerman was ejected for the first time in his career, the Nationals finalized a 3-2, walk-off loss before 18,105 at Turner Field. Tyler Clippard yielded a missile of a single to center by Heyward, leaving the Braves exultant and the Nationals trying to avoid a sweep Thursday. The stockpiling of losses - this was No. 69 - has done little to blunt their sting.

"It's not fun to lose," Clippard said. "Ever."

The game-winning rally started when Sean Burnett, who retired five of the six batters he faced, yielded a bloop single to Rick Ankiel with one out. Bench coach John McLaren, in place of ejected Manager Jim Riggleman, summoned Clippard from the bullpen. He promptly threw David Ross three balls and walked him on the fifth pitch.

Omar Infante followed and stuck out on a 2-2 fastball well out of the strike zone, bringing Clippard one out away from an escape and the crowd to its feet. There was no one they'd rather have at the plate than Heyward. They chanted his name.

Despite the strikeout of Infante, Clippard had no control, and he knew it. "Clearly," he said. The winning run in scoring position, Clippard threw three consecutive balls to Heyward. Clippard assumed, with Martin Prado on deck and considering his allergy to the strike zone, Heyward would take the next pitch.

"Their best hitter was coming up, and I wasn't really throwing strikes," Clippard said.

Clippard threw a fastball that "wasn't the best pitch to hit," Heyward said. But he swung anyway, and he drilled a liner to center. Ankiel glided home.

In the clubhouse, Zimmerman could only watch. He had stepped on a major league baseball field 712 times before Wednesday night and had never been forcibly removed from one. In the eighth inning, with two outs, home plate umpire Scott Barry changed that.

Zimmerman took strike two from reliever Jonny Venters, a pitch he believed to be low and ball four. (A replay with strike zone technology showed a strike.) Zimmerman had taken several paces toward first before Barry summoned him back to the batter's box. Zimmerman ambled around and took his time before he re-entered the box and faced the full count.

"I didn't say anything to him," Zimmerman said. "People do it all the time. I obviously thought it was a little low, but he was good all night. He had a good game. I thought the ball was low, that's it."

Venters fired a nasty fastball low and outside with the count full, and Zimmerman foul-tipped it for strike three. Zimmerman took one step and slammed his bat on the ground. Next, he chucked his helmet. He stood with his back to Barry - apparently hushed - and Barry threw him out of the game.

"I was more upset with striking out than anything," Zimmerman said. "I guess he thought that I was doing that directed towards him."

Zimmerman turned, seemingly stunned, and argued with Barry for several seconds. Riggleman took up Zimmerman's cause and wound up sharing his third baseman's fate.

"I think Zim was just irritated with himself," Riggleman said. "An equipment fine would be appropriate, not an ejection."

The Nationals scored two runs off Braves starter Tim Hudson in the third, something close to a miracle. Hudson, it could safely be argued, has tormented the Nationals like no other pitcher since baseball returned to Washington. He entered 10-1 with a 1.49 ERA in 16 starts against the Nationals, 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA this season.

Hudson began typically, facing the minimum over the first two innings. For one inning, anyway, the Nationals solved him. Michael Morse and Willie Harris rolled consecutive singles through the right side. Roger Bernadina lashed an RBI single into right field, and Zimmerman ripped a two-out RBI base hit to left to give the Nationals a 2-0 lead.

Their lead didn't last long. Right after Livan Hernandez mitigated a bases-loaded, no-outs jam with a run-scoring double play, he could not escape the fourth inning without further damage. Alex Gonzalez popped to shallow right. Second baseman Adam Kennedy drifted out and Morse sprinted in from right field. Either could have caught it, but neither did. The ball plopped to the ground and Brian McCann scored.

The same defense helped Hernandez in the sixth. With Prado on first after a leadoff single, McCann launched a fly ball deep to center. Bernadina tracked it down on the warning tracked and rifled a throw back toward the infield. Prado tagged up, but Bernadina's one-hop throw to Kennedy beat him for a double play.

Hernandez dodged trouble for the rest of the night, allowing nine singles and two walks in his seven innings but just two runs. He had matched Hudson, a burgeoning Cy Young candidate, and lowered his ERA to 3.06.

"In my career, I've gotten in trouble a lot," Hernandez said. "You figure out, what is a way to get out?" Hernandez was at his unconventional best, but the Nationals left him without a win.

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