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Two bad pitches do in Zimmermann


Two bad pitches do in Zimmermann

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."

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]