BALTIMORE — History, it appeared, could safely take precedence. In the seventh inning, Ryan Zimmerman tucked his ash bat under his left armpit, tightened the Velcro straps of his gray batting gloves and stepped into the batter’s box. Sixteen hitters in major league history had slugged four home runs in one game. Zimmerman, already history personified for the Washington Nationals, had the chance to become the 17th.
The Nationals, it appeared, could bask in Zimmerman’s pursuit of four homers. They had led the Baltimore Orioles at one point by four runs. Jordan Zimmermann, their best, most unflappable pitcher, occupied the mound. And then the thumping Orioles lineup, the arrival of summer air and the cozy dimensions of Camden Yards shoved history aside.
Baltimore’s seventh-inning onslaught delivered the Nationals a stinging 9-6 defeat and spoiled Zimmerman’s career night. Zimmerman smashed home runs in his first three at-bats — one to left, one to center and one to right — before he whiffed in the seventh inning. The Orioles scored seven earned runs off Zimmermann, including four in a six-run, seventh-inning bonanza that erased the Nationals’ 6-3 lead.
“It’s tough to have a night like that, and then not be able to celebrate and have fun with it because we lost,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve been swinging the bat better lately. Tonight, everything came together in one game.”
As the four-game, two-city showdown between the regional rivals moved north, the air warmed and the ball jumped. The flight and frequency of batting practice homers served notice that hitting weather had arrived and Camden Yards would play like a band box. It could not predict the eight combined home runs. Or how badly Zimmermann would unravel.
“Those guys give me six runs like that, I got to be able to do a better job,” Zimmermann said. “It’s solely on me, this one. I’ll come back in five days and be ready to go.”
Zimmermann entered with a 1.71 ERA, trying to become the first pitcher to reach nine wins. The Orioles swatted him throughout the night, including Chris Davis’s first homer and a solo shot from Nick Markakis. He left his fastball up, an uncharacteristic mistake, “and they made me pay,” Zimmermann said. Still, he dodged big trouble and entered the seventh with only 71 pitches.
The Orioles ambushed him. Ryan Flaherty singled. Steve Pearce skied a fly ball to left that landed just out of Tyler Moore’s reach, just over the 364-foot mark on the outfield fence. Camden Yards erupted, the score tightened to 6-5 and the Nationals had more to worry about than getting Zimmerman to the plate again.
“I thought it was a routine fly ball,” Zimmermann said. “And then I saw T-Mo drifting to the track. I think some of their numbers a little bit escalated because of the ballpark, but they’re a good hitting ballclub.”
The Orioles kept coming, and the park grew louder. Nate McLouth ripped a single off Zimmermann’s foot. Manny Machado pounded a double to the left field gap, aided by the mistaken angle taken by Moore.
With the score tied, Johnson came to get Zimmermann. He chose Tyler Clippard because two left-handers, Markakis and Davis, loomed. Against Clippard this season, left-handers had gone 2 for 37 with a pair of singles.
Markakis ripped a single, scoring Machado with the go-ahead run. After Adam Jones flied out to deep left, Davis came to the plate with Markakis on second. Johnson elected to pitch to perhaps the hottest hitter on the planet.
“I probably should have put him on,” Johnson said. “But I like Clip against left-handers.”
Clippard moved ahead of Davis 0-2 and tried to make him chase a change-up. But he left the pitch too far over the plate, and Davis blasted his 19th homer deep to right.
“I’m trying to use his aggressiveness to my advantage,” Clippard said. “I did that the first two pitches. I’m trying to get that change-up out of the zone. I just left it up. It was off the plate by a hair but not enough.”
For so long, it appeared the night belonged to Zimmerman. He became the eighth player to blast three homers at Camden Yards and the third National to do so overall, joining Adam Dunn and Alfonso Soriano. Through happenstance or maybe some greater force, Zimmerman’s career night landed on World MS Day. Zimmerman’s mother, Cheryl, has battled multiple sclerosis since Zimmerman’s youth, and Zimmerman founded a charity, ziMS, to raise awareness.
In his previous 22 games, Zimmerman had hit .338 with a .430 on-base percentage. Still, Johnson wanted more. In those 80 at-bats, Zimmerman had managed just six extra-base hits, including two homers. He had launched only three homers in 137 at-bats all season. Johnson implored Zimmerman to pull the ball more often in order to hit with more power. Zimmerman was clogging the bases; Johnson wanted damage, too.
“I’ve been hitting the ball well the last couple weeks,” Zimmerman said. “I haven’t really had much power to show for it. But you gotta start before you gradually build up.”
In the first inning Wednesday, Zimmerman came to the plate with two outs and none on. Chris Tillman fired a low, 2-2, 92-mph fastball. Zimmerman walloped it into the back bullpen beyond the left field fence, some 430 feet from home plate.
In the fourth, Roger Bernadina led off and clobbered the 68th homer ever to land on Eutaw Street. Only one National — Dunn — had ever done that.
Zimmerman came to the plate and crushed another homer off Tillman, whom he had never previously faced, this one a bullet to center field that traveled roughly 420 feet. Zimmerman batted with a man on with two outs the fifth inning, again facing Tillman. He torched a fastball just to left of the big scoreboard in right field, giving him four RBI and the Nationals a 6-2 lead.
Zimmerman had one more chance, in the seventh. “I knew I had three home runs,” Zimmerman said. “I wasn’t trying to hit four home runs. The whole day and really the last couple weeks, I’ve been trying to hit the ball hard.”
Steve Johnson froze him with a 1-2 fastball. Zimmerman bent his knee and spun around, headed back to the dugout. His chance at history had vanished, and the Nationals would soon only want to forget the night.
“Well, that one hurt,” Davey Johnson said. “This ballpark will eat you alive.”
More on the Nationals:
Box score: Orioles 9, Nationals 6