MIAMI -- He threw 98 pitches for the afternoon, most of them quality pitches that held the Marlins' potent lineup in check. Jordan Zimmermann, though, couldn't get past those two wayward sliders he served up on a tee to Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton in the bottom of the sixth inning.
"I mean, two pitches is what it comes down to for me," Zimmermann said. "Two bad pitches, and it cost me the game."
Yes, the Nationals did have other opportunities to avoid a 5-3, Memorial Day loss to Miami. They were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, the lone hit coming on Ryan Zimmerman's two-run double in the fifth off Carlos Zambrano. They went 0-for-8 against the Marlins bullpen. And they let Jose Reyes hustle his way to an insurance run in the seventh.
But those two sliders from Zimmermann in the sixth probably defined this game, and they certainly stuck in everyone's craw well after the fact.
"I mean, those cost him," manager Davey Johnson said. "I thought he threw the ball good, just made two mistakes to the wrong guys."
Forgive Johnson and anyone else in the Nationals' clubhouse for being a bit cranky at the end of the day. After playing on Sunday Night Baseball in Atlanta, then arriving in Miami at 3 a.m., they arrived at garish Marlins Park seven hours later and were tasked with taking the field against a tough division opponent.
The Nationals were careful not to blame their performance on the lack of sleep.
"I think we battled," left fielder Steve Lombardozzi said. "We played a great game. It's tough to come back after so late last night. But I thought we battled and played real well."
Besides, while the rest of his teammates were boarding a charter flight in Atlanta at 1 a.m., Zimmermann was sound asleep in his Miami hotel room, having been sent down early to ensure he was well-rested for his 10th start of the season.
The right-hander looked sharp early on, throwing a healthy 35 of 43 pitches for strikes through the third inning. And though he served up a solo homer to Logan Morrison in the fourth, a blast that ignited the Marlins' much-ridiculed, home-run sculpture into action, he wasn't upset with the inside fastball he threw in that situation.
Besides, Zimmermann was still beaming from the home run he clubbed one inning earlier, the first of his professional career. Even if he wasn't sure at first the ball had cleared the left-field fence and landed in the trendy Clevelander bar beyond the wall.
"It's hard to see," he said. "There's so many bright objects out there."
The Nationals were leading 3-1 when Zimmermann took the mound for the sixth, feeling good about their chances to win their fourth straight and maintain their 2 12-game lead in the NL East. But he immediately got into trouble, leaving that 2-2 slider to Ramirez up and over the plate, resulting in a leadoff single.
Moments later, Zimmermann tried to sneak that 3-1 slider past Stanton. The notion of using the breaking ball there wasn't a problem, but the execution of the pitch was.
"I can throw anything in any situation," Zimmermann said. "I just have to get it down a little more. That was right over the middle, and he's one of those guys that's trying to pull everything and, you know, he hits mistakes."
The ball soared to left, crashing off a lime green wall some 412 feet from the plate. It was Stanton's 12th homer of the season, his 11th this month.
"I mean, you can't throw a hanging a slider to him," Johnson said. "Anybody, really. He pitched him good the whole game. To get really beat on that pitch, that's tough. He was totally in control until that inning, still had a low pitch count and throwing the heck out of the ball. You just can't make mistakes with that part of the lineup."
The Nationals still had a chance to rally and seize control of the game. But a potential seventh-inning rally fizzled when Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen turned to his bullpen and watched that unit come up big.
Left-hander Dan Jennings was summoned to face Bryce Harper with two on and nobody out. Remembering a couple of encounters the two had during the Arizona Fall League, Jennings fed the 19-year-old a steady of stream of sliders, most of them well out of the zone. On his 3-2 offering, he got Harper to loft a flyball down the left-field line, then watched as Chris Coghlan came charging over to make a nice catch for the first out.
Right-hander Edward Mujica then entered to face Zimmerman (perhaps the Nationals' hottest hitter at the moment) and fired up a first-pitch fastball over the heart of the plate. Zimmerman couldn't turn down a cookie like that, so he swung and hoped he would hit the ball hard someplace. He did, except he hit it right at Ramirez, who started an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play.
"It's frustrating when you get a pitch you can hit and you're ready for it, and you just hit it right at somebody," the Nationals third baseman said.
That was the last shot the Nationals would get. Mujica retired the side in the eighth, and erratic closer Heath Bell did the same in the ninth.
Thus ended the Nationals' winning streak and thus sent them back to their downtown Miami hotel for a much-needed night of rest. They'll return Tuesday evening for their latest in a string of battles with tough division opponents, hoping once again to maintain their spot atop the NL East.
"I'll tell you what, I found out why they're in first place," Zambrano said. "Those kids can hit, and they have good pitching. They're good."