Baltimore's barrage sinks Nationals pitching

Baltimore's barrage sinks Nationals pitching
May 30, 2013, 12:15 am
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Nationals waste good effort in Baltimore

BALTIMORE — There should be no surer thing for the Nationals right now than Jordan Zimmermann on the mound in the seventh inning with a three-run lead.

Even though the ball had been flying out of Camden Yards all night Wednesday — Ryan Zimmerman, for crying out loud, clubbed three homers in his first three at-bats — Zimmermann had been able to keep the Orioles' potent lineup mostly in check. And now as this game was moving into its final stages, the right-hander and unofficial ace of the staff should have been primed to put the finishing touches on this Nationals victory.

And then ... well, let Davey Johnson explain how that seemingly comfortable lead morphed into an agonizing, 9-6 loss amid a sudden barrage of Baltimore home runs.

"That one hurt," the veteran manager said. "It's a tough ballpark to pitch in, and one little mistake ... you let them get something going and the momentum shifts real quick. I thought Zim had pretty good stuff, but this ballpark can eat you alive."

By night's end, cozy Camden Yards had chewed up Zimmermann and Tyler Clippard, spit them out and left them rotting on the ground. With a six-run explosion in the top of the seventh off those two right-handers, the Orioles flipped this interleague rivalry ballgame on its end and left the Nationals trying to figure out what exactly had just happened to them, and how it happened so fast.

"It's surprising in the sense that those games, traditionally, we're going to win," Clippard said. "We got a lead early and felt good about things. Jordan was throwing the ball well. But, again, they have a good lineup. This is an offensive park, and they took advantage of some mistakes that we made, and it kind of snowballed fast on us."

What should have been an uplifting and history-making night, with Zimmerman becoming only the third player in Nationals history to homer three times in a game, instead turned into perhaps the most sour loss this team has suffered in 2013.

Zimmerman had been a one-man wrecking crew, launching a trio of home runs off Chris Tillman: one to left field, one to center field, one to right field. Five innings into this game, he had already doubled his season-long power output from three homers to six.

"The whole day, and really the last couple weeks, I've been trying to hit the ball hard," Zimmerman said. "I've always been told that if you hit the ball hard, good things will happen. Lately, it's been good. Before that, it's been a little bit of a scuffle. Unfortunately, that happens a lot in the beginning of the years for me. Tonight was good. I just gotta build off that."

Roger Bernadina also homered, helping pace a Nationals offensive attack that included six runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings against Tillman. And then, that same lineup went completely silent, finishing the night 0-for-13 against Baltimore's bullpen.

That wouldn't have been a problem had Zimmermann and Clippard been able to maintain what looked like a comfortable lead, but neither right-hander was able to do that.

The reversal of fortune happened in a heartbeat. Zimmermann opened up the seventh allowing a single to Ryan Flaherty, then a two-run homer to Steve Pearce just over the left field fence. Nate McLouth smoked a comebacker off the pitcher and beat it out for a single, then Manny Machado smoked an RBI double to left-center, and suddenly this was a 6-6 ballgame with Zimmermann trudging off the mound in despair.

"It did happen quick," he said. "I look up, and we're losing. Those guys give me six runs like that, I've got to do a better job, and we should win this ballgame. It's solely on me, this one."

Though Zimmermann did allow the Orioles to tie it up (and ultimately was charged with the loss) Clippard also didn't do his job to put out the fire. Summoned to face Nick Markakis, the reliever immediately surrendered an RBI single up the middle, bringing home the go-ahead run.

Two batters later, Chris Davis demolished an 0-2 changeup from Clippard for a two-run homer, his second of the game and incredibly his 19th in 53 games this season.

"As relievers coming into a situation like that, it's up to us to kind of stop that momentum," Clippard said. "And unfortunately I wasn't able to do that tonight."

Johnson entrusted that inning to Clippard, who had held left-handed hitters to an .054 batting average this season. Markakis, though, hits righties at a .315 clip, while Davis sports an otherworldly 1.312 OPS against against them.

"The first baseman's in heat," Johnson said, referring to Davis. "I probably should've put him on. But I like Clip against left-handers. He's been outstanding all year. They're hitting less than .100 off him, and just one of those things. Tough game. Tough one to take."