There is no shame, and little complexity, in the kind of loss the Nationals sustained on Thursday afternoon. They ran into perhaps the most certain thing in baseball, an ace that is pitching so well, he reduces the game to a handful of missed chances and many more long faces, shaking heads and respectful platitudes from beaten opponents.
It’s the most valuable commodity in the game because it’s such a difficult gambit to beat. It’s what the Nationals soon hope to have, why they paid so dearly to guarantee six years of Stephen Strasburg’s services and why they lost on Thursday.
The comparison between Strasburg and the Colorado Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez was difficult to miss on Thursday. Jimenez is was the Nationals think Strasburg can be; a wiry, athletic stopper who’s as capable of throwing a 99-mph fastball as he is an 80-mph curveball that drops with such severity that if an airplane were on the same trajectory, passengers would need oxygen masks. When opposing teams are facing those kinds of pitchers, they hope for a mistake here or a miscalculation there; Jimenez is pitching in a manner right now that allows none of those.
In his last start, he threw a no-hitter. On Thursday, he was merely excellent, not otherworldly. But excellent still meant seven innings of shutout ball and a 2-0 win for the Rockies over the Nationals.
Livan Hernandez was strong again for Washington, allowing two runs in eight innings. A Nationals lineup that was missing Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham, though, had little chance against Jimenez.
“I think you’re lucky to get one (good pitch in an at-bat),” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “His ball is moving so late and so hard, what are you going to do? You almost have to guess, and when you guess, he throws you something else.”
Jimenez pounded the strike zone all day, throwing 78 of his 121 pitches for strikes. The Nationals had just five hits off him, and got only six balls out of the infield. Mostly, they made weak contact, reducing their chances to fouling off enough pitches that they could get Jimenez out of the game.
Washington did that after seven innings, but by that point, the Rockies’ Miguel Olivo and Ian Stewart had already hit solo homers off Hernandez, and Colorado had all it would need.
“This guy’s a horse,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s out there nine innings, no-hitter, the other day. Today, 120-plus plus pitches. He’s just in total command.”
Hernandez, who came into the game on a 16-inning shutout streak, saw that end in the second inning when Olivo hit a two-out, full-count slider into the Rockies’ bullpen in center. Stewart’s homer in the seventh came on a tough pitch, a low fastball that the third baseman somehow reached and shot over the fence in right center.
“It’s a great game. We played hard,” Hernandez said. “I made the mistakes today. Somebody’s got to win, and he pitched better than me.”
That’s the reason a top-end starter is called an ace; when he’s on, he’s the baseball equivalent of the trump card, against which there is no defense or countermeasure.
Hernandez, at age 35, still works in that realm occasionally. Jimenez lives in it. And the only response to him right now is resignation and respect.
“It’s just one of those things where he came out, he gunned, and we had our guy gunning, too,” center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. “They got on top of us there. They won, they battled, but they know we’re coming to play, too.”