Jordan Zimmermann pitched well Saturday, but his defense betrayed him. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Facing the lineup that battered him more than any other, Jordan Zimmermann found his most difficult opponent lurking behind him. On the rare day Zimmermann solved the Cardinals, his defense unraveled during one critical inning.

The Nationals’ final, furious rally fell short in their 4-3 loss to the Cardinals and Bryce Harper’s benching overshadowed everything else. But the Nationals could have won – and Zimmermann may have earned his first win over the Cardinals – if not for the brand of sloppy defense the Nationals seemed to do away with Friday night.

Zimmermann allowed only one earned run over seven innings, but the Cardinals took advantage of Anthony Rendon’s throwing error and two misplays by Jayson Werth to score three unearned runs in the second inning. The Nationals’ offense never fully recovered, despite Danny Espinosa’s rocket into the front row in the fifth inning and Rendon’s RBI double in eighth.

“A lot better execution,” Zimmermann said. “My curveball was good. I felt like I could flip it in there anytime for a strike. The fastball command was there all day. I thought I pitched pretty well. You’d like to get a win on days like this. It’s baseball.”

Zimmermann entered Saturday 0-4 with an 8.59 ERA against the Cardinals in seven starts, including Game 2 of the 2012 National League Division series. The Cardinals had mashed 51 hits off him in 36 2/3 innings.

“I don’t know if we make too much of it,” Manager Matt Williams said before the game. “It may be a question of them seeing him better than they see somebody else. If he makes his pitches and executes the pitch, he’s got a chance to beat anybody. History is good to look at. But it doesn’t mean today, and it doesn’t necessarily mean going forward. He just needs to throw the ball where he wants to, and he’ll be fine.”

Zimmermann breezed through a two-strikeout first in just 11 pitches, but he found trouble after his defense betrayed him in the second. Following a one-out walk to Allen Craig, Zimmermann induced a double-play ball to third base from Jhonny Peralta. Rendon, flawless at two positions all season, pulled Espinosa off second base with a wide throw.

Rather than escaping the inning, Zimmermann faced a jam. With two outs, Tony Cruz smoked a single to right field. “Hanging slider,” Zimmermann said. Peralta sprinted home, and Werth could have ended the inning and prevented a run with a strong, or even adequate, throw.

But as Werth fielded the ball, he had expected a long, high hop. The ball instead skidded low, and so he broke down to field it and lost his momentum. When he threw the ball home, he could not grip all four seams, and when he released it the ball sailed. The throw veered 20 feet up the third base line, and Peralta cruised home to push the Cardinals’ ahead, 2-0.

“It’s a play I feel like I should make, could make,” Werth said. “But again, I just feel like we’re a little unlucky right now.”

Lance Lynn, the opposing pitcher, smacked Zimmermann’s 2-2 fastball into the right field corner. “They made an error, which is fine,” Zimmermann said. “But I got to buckle down. I had the eight hole hitter up and the pitcher. I just didn’t make my pitches there.”

Werth again could have minimized the damage. He had no chance to catch Lynn’s drive, but when the ball skipped under his glove and rolled to the wall, it allowed Cruz to score from first base. The Cardinals led, 3-0, all of the runs unearned on account of Rendon’s error.

“Lynn hits a ball down the line that bounces and kicks the other way and gets away from me,” Werth said. “It’s one of those things.”

Espinosa cut the deficit when he led off the fifth with a solo homer off Cardinals starter Lynn over the scoreboard in right field, his first major league home run since last May.

“I was just trying to stay patient and get a ball up and over the plate,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa’s reemergence has been one of the most pleasant developments of the Nationals season, especially once Ryan Zimmerman’s broken thumb pressed him into everyday service. But in a more crucial situation, Espinosa just missed his chance to pull the Nationals back into the game.

The Nationals loaded the bases in the sixth inning against Lynn after Desmond drew a two-out walk. Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny summoned left-hander Kevin Siegrest, opting to make Espinosa bat from the right side of the plate. Espinosa just missed a 2-0 fastball, lofting it to center field to end the inning.

“That’s kind of always baseball,” Espinosa said. “You just miss it – just barely on everything. I felt like I took a good swing, just clipped it a little bit.”