BALTIMORE — Three hours before the first pitch Friday night, well before his best player’s slump found new depths, Manager Davey Johnson shuffled down the tunnel and into the third base dugout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, clad in his Washington Nationals uniform.
“The view is different from this side, huh?” Johnson drawled. He grinned. He was a visitor in a place he loves, an opponent of the team he cherishes still, even after everything that happened. “All my memories of Baltimore and baseball are all great memories,” Johnson said.
In Johnson’s first game at Camden Yards in 15 years, his Nationals gave him a taut game to remember but a result to forget. The Baltimore Orioles beat the Nationals, 2-1, before a sellout crowd, 45,891 souls energized by the sudden ascension of two previously woeful franchises.
Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel scythed through the Nationals’ lineup, yielding five hits and no earned runs in eight innings while striking out 10 and using only 96 pitches. Ryan Zimmerman took an 0 for 4, another dispiriting night for Washington’s skidding star player. And right-hander Jordan Zimmermann scraped out seven innings without his best stuff, allowing two runs on eight hits, taking the loss because of customarily lousy run support.
The most alarming piece for the Nationals is Zimmerman. He has been working to pull out of a rare, prolonged hitting malaise, prompted by inflammation in his right shoulder. Teammates and coaches insist a hot streak will soon consume the cold spell, but at the moment it is growing worse. Zimmerman has five hits in his last 46 at-bats with nine strikeouts and no extra-base hits.
“Nobody wants to do better than me. I want to do better,” Zimmerman said. “I want to get out of this. I want to do more to help the team. But until that happens, I still have to help out the young guys and play good defense. I can’t pout or worry about myself. I’ve just got to keep going, and it’ll turn around.”
Afterward, Johnson said he is “sure” Zimmerman is healthy. He admitted he had considered moving Zimmerman down in the lineup, but “I like him where he’s at. I know what he can do. He doesn’t have to prove anything. I still like the chances every time he’s in there.”
The Nationals’ best chance served as the most climactic moment of the game and, for Washington, the most wrenching. In the seventh inning, one-out singles by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa gave the Nationals (40-28) multiple base runners for the first time. Roger Bernadina struck out, leaving the inning, and maybe the game, to Jesus Flores. Flores smoked a 3-2 fastball toward left field, the hardest-hit ball off a Nationals bat all night. At the perfect second, shortstop J.J. Hardy leaped and snared the rocket. The crowd exploded as he landed, and the base runners flung equipment.
“You think it’s going to be a base hit, and then it’s a lineout,” Zimmermann said. “It’s an out in the book.”
The place buzzed for the Orioles, now 40-30, like it had not since Johnson led them to their last winning season in 1997. Johnson had been back to Camden Yards only once since Orioles owner Peter Angelos forced him out as the team’s manager in 1997, and that was when he returned for a reunion of the 1970 World Series champion Orioles.
Johnson and Angelos have not spoken in years. But Johnson has not allowed any lingering antipathy toward Angelos to infect his view of the city or the team.
“Managers are hired to get fired,” he said. “All the times that I was here, they were fun times for me. I really enjoyed playing here, learning the game of baseball here. It was fun to come back and manage in the town I played in.”
Threatening weather delayed the game by 1 hour 1 minute, and the hot, wet conditions made it a struggle for Zimmermann. He grinded through another tough-luck loss, dropping his record to 3-6 as his ERA moved to 2.89. His slider, he said, was “terrible.” The mound’s dirt stuck to his cleats. A hard grounder drilled the arch of his right foot. And still, he allowed only two runs — on a homer by Mark Reynolds in the second and an RBI double by Hardy in the fifth.
“It seemed like I had runners on every inning to lead off,” Zimmermann said. “I really had to battle tonight.”
Before Hardy’s double, Desmond had led off the top of the fifth inning with a bouncing single up the middle. Before the game, Johnson said he had voted for Desmond on his all-star ballot. It is not Desmond’s numbers that make him a strong contender. It is the general verve of his play — his defense, his leadership and his hustle.
With one out and Desmond still on first base, Bernadina smacked a groundball to the left side. Third baseman Wilson Betemit ranged two steps to his left and fired to first. Desmond had raced to second, and when he saw Betemit lingering toward shortstop, he bolted.
“We didn’t have much going on there offensively,” Desmond said. “So I just tried to put a little pressure on them.”
Desmond bore down on third as Betemit scurried back to the base. Reynolds would have to hit Betemit on the run, like a quarterback throwing a crossing route. The throw eluded Betemit and skipped into foul territory. Desmond popped up and sprinted home. He had scored from first on a groundball out.
The Nationals could not take control of the game, though, and their best player could not pull out of his slump. Johnson professes to take pride in Baltimore’s baseball resurgence. On his first night back in the city, he would have preferred it took a break. But he also still had the first-place team.
“We’re in first place,” Desmond said. “There’s really nobody in here should be down. Nobody should be upset. We’re putting in a good effort. Sometimes, somebody’s got to lose.”