Something about the Nationals Thursday night looked, well, uncomfortable.
Whether it was Jordan Zimmermann struggling to establish a rhythm on the mound or locate his fastball, or whether it was a lineup full of hitters who were hogtied by right-hander James McDonald, there was something of an uneasy feeling to this 5-3 loss to the Pirates.
"Well," manager Davey Johnson said as he sat down for his postgame news conference, "that was a tough one."
Tough, because for more than five innings the Nationals had no business sharing this field with their opponents, then nearly stormed all the way back before faltering late when presented a chance to complete the comeback.
Tough, because Zimmermann slogged his way through his roughest outing of the season, his first non-quality start in eight tries. The right-hander's mistakes were obvious: He served up three home runs in six innings, one to light-hitting catcher Rod Barajas, two to uber-talented center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
"I didn't feel very good at all," Zimmermann said. "I was flying open, and I wasn't able to locate my fastball at all. The breaking stuff was good, but when you can't locate your fastball, you're going to be in trouble and it's going to be a long game."
The first two homers -- McCutchen's solo shot in the first, Barajas' two-run blast in the fourth -- came on poorly located fastballs. The third, though, came on a first-pitch slider to McCutchen ... who still sent it flying over the left-field fence for his 10th home run in 23 career games against the Nationals.
"I'm hoping he was sitting first-pitch slider," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Because if he's not sitting one, it seemed even more impressive. He's one of those special players that can do everything. He's fun to watch. I just wish we didn't have to watch him so much when we play him."
The Nationals can thank Major League Baseball's schedulers for limiting this series to only two games, because there's no telling how much more damage McCutchen would have inflicted if given the opportunity to face the Nationals pitching staff again. In five games over the last 10 days against them, the All-Star center fielder went 10-for-17 with four homers, six RBI and three walks. Oh, he also robbed Adam LaRoche of extra bases Thursday night with a fifth-inning, highlight-reel catch against the fence.
"I mean, we certainly haven't figured out how to pitch him," said manager Davey Johnson, who admitted he contemplated intentionally walking McCutchen. "He's got to be hitting about five or six hundred off us. He looks awful comfortable in there."
Zimmermann had to battle throughout his six innings of work, needing a season-high 107 pitches just to reach that point.
"He was rushing. He was falling," Johnson said. "That's the worst I've seen him with his command early in a ballgame."
Not that it would have mattered much had Zimmermann been lights-out early on, because the Nationals weren't going to touch McDonald no matter what. The unheralded right-hander broke out a devastating curveball and baffled Johnson's lineup, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced.
By the time Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with one out of the fifth, McDonald had yet to put a man on base. That run at perfection ended when the 19-year-old drew a walk, but it wasn't until Jesus Flores led off the sixth with a double that McDonald's no-hit bid was finally quashed.
"You know, that curveball, we just weren't getting on it for whatever reason," LaRoche said. "Couldn't figure it out until late. And by the time we did there in that one inning, he was out of the game. Too little, too late."
That one inning was the bottom of the sixth, during which Zimmerman laced a two-out, two-run single and LaRoche recorded only the 10th triple of his career. All of this brought the Nationals to within a run, but they couldn't push across one more despite several late opportunities.
With runners on second and third and one out in the seventh, rookie Steve Lombardozzi tapped a comebacker to the mound and Desmond struck out swinging at a 3-2 slider from reliever Juan Cruz.
Two innings later, Desmond again had an opportunity to drive in the tying run when he dug in against Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan with two on and two out. Again, Desmond struck out, his fourth K of the game.
"I was looking heater all the way and I just missed 'em," Desmond said. "I missed a lot of balls tonight, fouled them off. I don't remember a time in my life I've ever fouled off 20 pitches in a game. But just wasn't getting the barrel there."
A fitting analysis of a frustrating ballgame for the Nationals.