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Two bad pitches do in Zimmermann

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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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Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Starter A.J. Cole made it 5 2/3 innings on Saturday afternoon, which is pretty good considering that's how much Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to pitch against the Rockies less than two weeks ago. Gio Gonzalez also only made it three innings in that series due to a rain delay.

And in the time since, the Nats' bullpen has been battered around by all sorts of elements including injuries and short outings from starters. The Nationals' next off-day on Thursday, Sept. 1 can't come soon enough to put them out of their current 20 games in 20 days misery.

Cole's outing, by all accounts, could have been a lot worse. But unfortunately for the Nationals, Saturday's game went to extra innings, forcing manager Dusty Baker to do some things he wouldn't normally prefer to do. Like, use the newly acquired Marc Rzepczynski for 2 1/3 innings. Or, to go to Mark Melancon for the third straight game. Or, to leave Yusmeiro Petit on the mound in the 11th even when it was clear he just didn't have it.

For Petit, in particular, Baker felt like he had no other choice, even after the right-hander served up a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon.

"We felt badly for Yusmeiro because we had to leave him in there, he was our last pitcher we didn't have [Koda] Glover and we were trying to stay away from [Mark] Melancon because that was his third day in a row and we didn't have [Shawn] Kelley. We were down to our last player, we had no more players on the bench and that was our last player, I don't know who was going to pitch if he didn't get out of that inning. He took one for the team so to speak," Baker said.

Petit's inning got off on a sour note with an error by Anthony Rendon at third base. It was one of two errors committed by the Nationals on Saturday. One was by Rzepczynski in the seventh and that one helped lead to a run. Rzepczynski also messed up fielding a bunt in the ninth. Cole also allowed a run on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.

It was a rough day for the Nats, who were plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes. That has been a theme lately and the Nationals hope it ends soon.

“We address it daily, but you cant harp on it. Like I said the other day these things go in streaks," Baker said. "Tony is sure handed over there. We haven’t seen Rzepczynski. He just threw that ball over the head. They bunted on us twice a couple of times and got hits on us. We just have to continue to work.”

The Nats have now made 14 errors in their last nine games. It's been bizarre to watch and it has some at a loss for words.

“Can’t call it. I don’t know. One of those things," left fielder Jayson Werth said.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before Bryce Harper earned his eight career ejection following a strikeout in the 10th inning, the Nats right fielder actually had a pretty good game at the plate. He landed an RBI double, walked and scored a run. He has now reached base in all 14 games since he returned from nursing a stiff neck.

The double was a familiar sight for Harper. He dropped it into the left field corner at Nationals Park, just as he did his triple the night before and just as he did his double the night before that. Three straight games with extra-base hits to the opposite field. That's not bad.

That, in fact, is something manager Dusty Baker has been waiting to see for quite some time.

“That’s a good sign, that’s an excellent sign," Baker said. "When he’s hitting that ball to left field and not pulling everything or rolling over means staying on the ball and he’s staying through the zone. That’s a very good sign. He’s been heating up. We know the best is yet to come.”

In the 14 games since he returned, Harper is 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs. This is the best Harper has played in months and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel good. I think the balls are falling where they should," the Nats right fielder said. "It's nice to go into a game and score some runs and have some fun."

In these 14 games, Harper has raised his season average from .233 all the way to .254. It's almost certainly too late for him to repeat as NL MVP, but he's heating up at a good time with September right around the corner and the playoffs, if the Nats keep their current pace, right after that.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

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