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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

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.

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Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is back for a second year and feeling optimistic for his Washington team. Spring training has begun in Florida and it has Baker thinking about how the Nats can create some excitement for local sports fans.

In an interview with American University’s WAMU radio station, Baker said D.C. wants to be a "city of champions.” Furthermore, he thinks it can be pulled off before the year ends.

"I came here to win a championship and you know I would love nothing more than to bring one to Washington. Washington, I didn’t know it before I got there, but it’s had a tough time getting out of the first round in a number of sports."

He projected the Nationals to bring home the next championship for the District, but he knows they have competition of late. 

"Washington Wizards are looking pretty good. I’m pulling for them first because their season ends before ours, so I’ve been really following them. The Capitals have a good thing going. I started watching the Redskins more this year.

"You know once it gets contagious in a city and you get a positive attitude throughout the city, then it transfers to the sports teams. So we want to be known as a city of champions, before the end of the year hopefully."

Baker has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teams, especially managing star players. He managed the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, a team he managed for four seasons.

He's never won a World Series, but has taken a team to Game 7. He also finished third for the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

So, what are Baker’s steps for the Nationals to get that ultimate prize? A simple formula, really.

"I think that we’ve got to stay healthy, number one. We’re trying to fill the holes that we need to fill, and we’ve got to play," he said. "You know last year we were very close, we were one hit away or one play away or one pitch away from going to the next round against the Cubs."

While he says he came to win Washington a championship, he's also enjoying his time in the city. 

"I love D.C. Before that, San Francisco was my favorite town; that’s my home. But I tell you, D.C. is definitely in the running," he said. "I thought San Francisco had the best seafood, but man, you guys have the best seafood I think in the world."

Thanks, Dusty!

The Nationals play their first spring training game against the New York mets on Saturday.

RELATED: NATIONALS REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

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Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

When it comes to sports, we sometimes forget that the athletes we look up to are just normal people. Normal people who have a lot to prove to millions of people on a weekly basis. Former Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel has discussed one of his human moments in an interview with 590 The Fan in St. Louis.

Ankiel admitted to drinking vodka during his plight as a pitcher. He referenced his first two starts of the 2001 season, in particular against the Arizona Diamondbacks where he allowed his anxiety to give in to alcohol to soothe him. In the previous postseason, he became the first pitcher since 1980 to throw five wild pitches in a single inning. 

It may have worked for a couple of games but Ankiel eventually realized it was only making matters worse.

Ankiel began playing in Majors at the age of 19, and has had a fluctuating career through six teams. All the while, he has kept a “never give up” mentality.

Why the sudden need to vent? Ankiel is getting up close and personal with his upcoming book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed my Life” which is co-written by sports writer Tim Brown. The book will be released on April 18.  

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