BALTIMORE - With Ryan Zimmerman having smacked three home runs and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals' ace through the first two months of the season, on the mound, this ballgame looked well in control after five innings.
The Nats held a 6-2 lead after five and had gotten into the Orioles' bullpen, while Zimmermann - he of the 1.71 ERA entering tonight - still had plenty of gas left in the tank.
Things then took a major turn for the worse. Zimmermann failed to retire a batter in the seventh inning, the O's put up a six spot in the frame, and the Nats dropped a frustrating 9-6 ballgame at the bandbox that is Camden Yards.
"That one hurt," manager Davey Johnson said. "It's a tough ballpark to pitch in and one little mistake, you let them get something going and the momentum shifts real quick. I thought Zim had pretty good stuff, but this ballpark can eat you alive."
There were eight home runs hit here tonight, four by each team. Zimmermann took the mound in the seventh with a three-run cushion and set to face the Orioles' No. 8, 9 and 1 hitters. Ryan Flaherty singled to open the inning, and Steve Pearce then crushed a two-run shot to left to cut the Nats' lead to one.
Nate McLouth followed with a single off Zimmermann's glove, and he came around to score from first base when Manny Machado followed with a double into the gap in left-center. That line shot tied the game, but the O's weren't done. Nick Markakis brough in Machado with an RBI single, and two batters later, on an 0-2 pitch, Chris Davis crushed his second homer of the game - his 19th of the season - to give the Orioles a 9-6 lead.
"The first baseman's in heat," Johnson said of Davis. "I probably should've put him on. But I like (Tyler Clippard) against left-handers. He's been outstanding all year. They're hitting less than .100 off him and just one of those things. Tough game. Tough one to take. ... (The ball) always jumps here. I know this ballpark. You've got to keep the ball down. You get the ball up. ... Clip made two good pitches to Davis and then hung a changeup up over the plate. That's what happens here."
It all happened so quickly in that seventh inning. Things were completely under control when Zimmermann first grabbed the ball to start the frame, and before you knew it, the Nats were on the ropes. Johnson didn't have a lot of time to get someone warming with Zimmermann losing it so quickly in the seventh, but he knew all along Clippard would be his first guy out of the 'pen in that spot.
"I mean, Clip was the man (for) that part of the lineup," Johnson said. "He was ready pretty quick. They jumped all over Zim pretty quick. The home run, Pearce's home run, just getting into the left field stands, that was a big blow."
Zimmerman entered the game with just three homers all season. He hit three in his first three at-bats of the night, all of which came off Orioles starter Chris Tillman.
"Zim had a great day," Johnson said. "Unfortunately we didn't hold up on the pitching end."
The Nats' bats went silent after Zimmerman's third homer of the game. They went 0-for-13 to end the ballgame, failing to notch a hit off an Orioles reliever, but that wasn't what frustrated Johnson the most.
"I mean, we've been pretty good holding a lead," he said. "Zim with a four-run lead going into that inning, I feel pretty good that with a low pitch count he can give me seven. But strange things happen in this ballpark."