Two easy conclusions may have been drawn after the Washington Nationals’ 3-1 loss Saturday afternoon to the Atlanta Braves. The men inside the Nationals’ clubhouse rejected both. Ryan Zimmerman had made another game-altering misfire, but the third baseman expressed only confidence in his surgically repaired right shoulder. The Braves captured their second win over Washington — and 10th in 11 games — but the Nationals dismissed any notion about a power shift in the National League East.
“Honestly, I think our lineup is better,” Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg said. “They’re just hot right now. It’s early. It’s not about how many wins you finish with in April. It’s about how many wins you have at the end of the year.”
If the Nationals made one unassailable point, it is that April is no time for sweeping statements. They were still left to stomach Saturday’s loss, which included catcher Wilson Ramos pulling his hamstring — the “heartbreak of the day,” Manager Davey Johnson said. Before a sellout crowd of 41,992, their offense ground to a halt against Braves ace Tim Hudson, with second baseman Danny Espinosa’s solo homer in the fifth inning providing their only resistance as Hudson, 37, notched his 199th career victory.
A lone run may have been enough for Strasburg if not for Zimmerman’s second crucial throwing error in as many games. After his desperate, off-balance heave led to the game-tying runs Friday night, Zimmerman made a wayward, sidearm throw Saturday with two outs in the third inning. The next batter, behemoth catcher Evan Gattis, crushed a homer over the visitors’ bullpen in left. The only two runs Strasburg allowed, both unearned, crossed the plate.
“I feel fine,” Zimmerman said. “I made an error. It happens. I’m going to make more. I made a couple other plays after that that were fine. I’ve been throwing the ball great. It’s fine. I feel fine. It was just a bad throw. It was an error. I think I’ll make more as the year goes on. I had a few more balls after that and did fine.”
On the surface, Zimmerman made errors on consecutive days that changed the game. He insisted that proves nothing. Friday night, he made a quick, borderline reckless attempt. “You can’t really count that one,” he said. If Hudson hadn’t dominated the Nationals’ lineup, his error Saturday may have been overlooked.
But, given the context, any misfire from Zimmerman will find its way under a microscope. Zimmerman underwent shoulder surgery in November to repair an inflamed joint that he believed led to his disjointed form. During spring training, Johnson raved about how much more “natural” Zimmerman’s motion looked. He impressed skeptical rival scouts. Before Friday, Zimmerman had been both flawless and spectacular at third base this season.
“He’s got a lot straighter ball this year than last year,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Last year, he had an issue where he was cutting some balls. Got his shoulder worked on, spent a lot of time this spring training working on it. He’s one of the best defenders out there. He’ll be fine.”
For all the confidence he inspired in himself and others, Zimmerman, has not recaptured his best form.
“It’s only going to get better,” Johnson said. “He had a major problem in there, and they’re rebuilding it. It’s just going to take time. But I think he’s throwing a lot better. I know he feels a lot better about it.”
Saturday, with two outs and the bases empty in the third, Justin Upton tapped a ball to the left side. Zimmerman charged toward the middle of the diamond and plucked the chopper on a high hop. As he crossed the mound, Zimmerman had time but chose to throw on the run, a motion he has mastered. This time, though, he short-armed the submarine toss.
“I should have set my feet,” Zimmerman said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating. It’s an easy play. I have more time. I should have just set my feet and made a strong throw, like I’ve been doing all year on those balls.”
LaRoche stretched into foul ground but, unlike a similar play Friday night, could not bail Zimmerman out. He tried for a sweep tag as the ball pulled him from the bag, but the ball deflected off LaRoche’s glove and trickled into foul ground.
A 26-year-old rookie, Gattis may be the tallest baseball tale that also happens to be true. He is a former drug addict who only a few years ago worked as a janitor. He does not wear batting gloves, hits cleanup and swings like a slow-pitch softball masher. When he played in the Venezuelan winter league, they called him “El Oso Blanco” — The White Bear.
Gattis pulverizes fastballs, and Strasburg intended to pitch him the same way Ross Detwiler had the previous night. He wanted to start low, then move up and make him chase a high fastball. The first step in Strasburg’s strategy didn’t work when he left the first fastball to Gattis up, not down and away like he wanted.
Gattis mashed the first fastball Strasburg threw him foul. Strasburg, perhaps sensing Gattis had him timed, threw a curveball in the dirt to even the count. He tempted fate with the high fastball. Gattis tattooed the chin-high, 96-mph heater over the home bullpen.
“The guy’s up there hacking,” Strasburg said. “I throw one at his neck, and he tomahawks it out. . . . You don’t really face a guy like that ever. You don’t really have any book to go off of.”
Strasburg hung on for 112 pitches, whiffing the final two batters he faced in the sixth. He finished with seven strikeouts against one walk and five hits. It was not enough against Hudson, who lowered his career ERA against the Nationals to 2.60. “Huddy was Huddy,” LaRoche said. “When he’s on, that’s what you’re getting.”
Gio Gonzalez will try to slow the Braves down Sunday against Paul Maholm in the finale. Zimmerman will man third base, confident about his throws across the diamond. The Nationals will arrive at their park believing they are the better team, unwilling to accept any April conclusions as truth.