The anxiety created by the Washington Nationals’ streak-busting loss Friday night had extra time to percolate as rain drenched Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon. Through a 72-minute delay, questions loomed about whether they could recapture the momentum of their dramatic 10-game run.
Two batters into the game, those concerns grew as Angel Pagan opened with a double and Hunter Pence followed with a home run off starter Jordan Zimmermann. But by the time Giants starter Tim Lincecum — long a reluctant friend of the Nationals — exited with two outs in the third, Washington had a 6-2 lead, a margin it held for the duration.
Denard Span greeted Lincecum with a triple. Anthony Rendon walked. After Jayson Werth singled and Adam LaRoche grounded into a double play the game was tied. A three-run second inning later and the Nationals were in control — comfortable with the lead and in the knowledge that their recent resilience remained, even if the streak it had sparked did not.
Pence’s homer went against the baseball logic that states you need to hit the top half of the ball to drive it — and that it is difficult to hit the top half of a ball thrown 95 mph at your eyes.
“That’s hard to do,” Manager Matt Williams said.
“There’s only one guy in the game that’s going to hit that pitch, and that’s him,” Zimmermann said. “I threw it right where I wanted it: 0-2, up by his shoulders. Beats me how he hit it that far.”
The absurdity of the shot allowed Zimmermann to ignore it, and his team pulled him even by the end of the inning.
“It would be easy for a team to say ‘Oh well, here we go’ after the top of the first,” Williams said. “They didn’t. They answered and drew even after the first, and that says something about those guys.”
Zimmermann would settle down. Lincecum never got the chance. Span and Werth delivered run-scoring hits in the second. Asdrubal Cabrera homered in the third. Zimmermann followed with a double, and the Nationals had once again reduced the former Cy Young Award winner to a batting practice pitcher: In his last four starts against the Nationals, Lincecum has given up 24 runs on 30 hits in 16 innings.
“Guys have confidence if they’ve got good numbers and they see him good,” Williams said. “I just think it was a really good approach today. Middle of the diamond. Jayson had a couple of perfect base hits with guys in scoring position.”
Werth knocked in the Nationals’ first run on a base hit to right center. He drove in another run in the second with a similar sharp line drive.
“Just hit the single over there we needed,” Williams said. “That’s how you sustain innings. That’s how you put up crooked numbers.”
The early-inning barrage left the lead in the hands of Zimmermann, whose fortunes against the Giants had been as good as Lincecum’s against Washington had been abysmal. Zimmermann had a 1.19 ERA in his previous five starts against the Giants, and while he wasn’t quite that strong Saturday, he pitched more than well enough.
With fastballs early and breaking balls late, Zimmermann chugged through the Giants’ order, allowing seven hits but earning key double plays while walking no one. By the time he gave way to Matt Thornton for the ninth inning, Zimmermann had allowed two runs and struck out eight to earn his ninth win. It took him 107 pitches to retire 24 Giants, a significant number given his recent stumbles as his pitch counts elevated into the 80s and 90s. He didn’t slow Saturday.
“I had a good fastball, and I was locating in and out,” Zimmermann said. “Slider was there, and I mixed the curveball in. Second and third time through the lineup, I started throwing more curveballs. And the last few innings, I mixed in some change-ups and got some groundballs.”
As Zimmermann settled in, the Nationals’ bats cooled against Yusmeiro Petit. He held the Nationals hitless through 41 / 3 innings, striking out five in relief of Lincecum. The final 16 Nationals hitters were retired in order by Petit and then Santiago Casilla.
But any questions about the Nationals’ resilience had long since been answered.
“You see a lot of teams, they go through streaks like that, and then all of a sudden — I don’t want to jinx or anything like that — but they go on losing streaks,” Span said. “It was just good for us to respond.”