ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jordan Zimmermann calmly stuck out his glove Wednesday afternoon, early-evening shadows criss-crossing the Angel Stadium infield behind him. He had ventured further into a major league baseball game than he ever had before, and he still dominated as thoroughly in the eighth inning as he had in the first. He fielded the comebacker, tossed the ball to first and walked off the field.
Zimmermann had done everything he could, and maybe more, to avoid the Washington Nationals’ first sweep since late May. But his offense made it irrelevant to the outcome.
In a 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels before 35,257, the Nationals managed three hits and hit the ball into the outfield just six times against Dan Haren and a pair of relievers, wasting what might have been the best start of Zimmermann’s career — “one of the better games I’ve ever seen pitched,” said Manager Davey Johnson, who’s only been in the majors in some capacity for four decades. Zimmermann pitched past the seventh for the first time, throwing a four-hit, eight-inning complete game without allowing an earned run.
Following the game, Johnson walked to the middle of the Nationals’ clubhouse and announced, “You guys win games, and I lose them.” He had taken over a team that had won 13 of 15 games. After the Angels swept Johnson’s first three games, the Nationals dropped back to below .500, 40-41, at the season’s halfway point.
“I loved this team from spring training and I love them even more now,” Johnson said. “It’s a good ballclub. We’ve just got a few things we’ve got to straighten out and we’ll be fine. This was a tough series.”
After Ryan Zimmerman doubled down the right field line in the top of the ninth, the Nationals pushed the tying run to third base against closer Jordan Walden. But Michael Morse swung through a chest-high, 100-mph fastball that zipped through tough shadows, sealing the Nationals’ 11th shutout of the season, achieved with a starting lineup lacking four regulars because of minor injuries.
The conditions hindered both offenses. Trying to discern pitches through late-afternoon shadows, neither scored an earned run. Jerry Hairston could not pick up one of Haren’s two-seam fastballs before it drilled him in the hand and broke a bone just above his wrist. He called playing at this time of day, “irresponsible.”
“As a hitter, you see the fastball well,” designated hitter Matt Stairs said. “But there were some shadows. It’s tough hitting. It’s tough to see the rotation. If you ask everybody, it’s not really a comfortable at-bat. It was the same on both sides. They didn’t square any balls up very well, and we didn’t, either. One, we give credit to the pitching. Two, we give credit to the sunlight. But no excuses.”
The Angels scored their only run without a hit. In the fourth, Zimmermann issued a leadoff walk to Bobby Abreu, his only walk of the game. Vernon Wells followed with a chopper to third. Zimmerman charged from third base, scooped the ball and whipped a quick sidearm throw to Danny Espinosa at second.
The ball tailed to the right, toward Abreu as he slid into the bag. Espinosa reached for the ball, but it sailed past his glove and into right field. Zimmerman had made his second throwing error in two games, and his fourth in 14 games in the field since he returned from the disabled list.
As Zimmerman entered the final stages of his recovery from an abdominal tear, he changed his throwing mechanics in order to use his legs and core more and his arm strength. The results have been mixed. Zimmerman remains confident with the new motion, but he allowed it is a process.
“Just like any new thing, it’s going to take a little while,” Zimmerman said. “It’s obviously tough to learn while you’re at this level. But I get better every day. As far as the future, and getting more consistent, it’s worth it. It’s something I’m going to stick with and get better at.”
Until Ivan Rodriguez slapped a single to center with one out in the eighth inning, the Nationals veered as close to being no-hit as possible without it actually happening. Their only hit had come in the fourth inning, when Brian Bixler bunted. He earned the base hit, but he might have been out had third baseman Alberto Callaspo’s throw been on target. Haren retired 21 of the first 24 batters he faced, issuing one walk and hitting Hairston.
Rodriguez’s single, though, finally injected drama into the game. Jayson Werth had sat out with tightness in his left hip, but he told Johnson, “I’ll be ready in any situation.” When Angels Manager Mike Scioscia called on lefty Scott Downs to face Alex Cora, Johnson countered with Werth.
Werth worked a 2-2 count, and Downs unfurled a backdoor curveball that looped over the plate. Werth watched for strike three, his 13th strikeout in 25 at-bats. “Just kind of froze me,” Werth said. “Didn’t see it real well.”
After the strikeout, Zimmermann walked to the mound for the first eighth inning of his career. “That was the last thing on my mind,” he said. He plowed through three batters, a grounder, a strikeout and the comebacker. He had lowered his ERA to 2.63 on the season and, in his last start before all-star selections, made a compelling case for his inclusion.
Zimmermann has thrown 11 straight quality starts, and during the stretch he has a 1.85 ERA, striking out 57 and walking 15. Still, he has four wins during that span, the victim of low run support.
With the first 81 games in the books, Zimmermann has been maybe one of the Nationals’ brightest spots. They have Thursday off, when can reflect on a crazy week and a promising first half.
“I’d say we’re far ahead of where anybody thought we’d be at this time — ahead of schedule, I guess you could call it,” Werth said. But me personally, I thought this was the type of ball we were going to play from not long after I got here in spring training. We’ve got a lot to look forward to in the second half. I’m excited.”