Nationals 8, Cardinals 6: Second Look

On Ryan Zimmerman’s first night back in the Nationals’ lineup, the team had its biggest comeback win of the year. Whether that’s coincidence or not is hard to prove, but there’s no question something felt different at Nationals Park on Tuesday night.

The Nationals drew 26,739 fans for their series opener with the Cardinals, some of whom were there to see St. Louis. But those fans were on their feet for most of the seventh inning, cheering wildly when Zimmerman drove in the first of six Nationals runs that inning with a double to right and when Laynce Nix fouled off six pitches before drawing a game-tying, bases-loaded walk in an 11-pitch at-bat.

With Zimmerman back in the line-up, the Nationals all of the sudden seemed harder to put down.

“He’s Ryan Zimmerman. He’s the man,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “It was good to have him back. Him being out there changes the feel a little bit.”

Here are last night’s awards:

Golden Geese
Nix: He came off the bench to face Jason Motte with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh, taking three pitches to get the count to 2-1. Then, he fouled off three, before taking ball three. Then, he fouled off three more, flipping a 98-mph fastball foul before Motte missed with a 97-mph fastball, walking him and bringing in the tying run. It was a great at-bat from a veteran who has been one of the surprise pickups for this team. “He’s been probably our most consistent player, which is hard to do off the bench,” Zimmerman said. “He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great pickup for our team.”

Nationals’ bullpen: After a poor start from Yunesky Maya put the Nationals in a 6-1 hole, somebody had to stop the Cardinals from adding on. The Nationals did it with one of their stranger bullpen configurations of the year. With the game looking out of hand, they went to Ryan Mattheus, who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in his big league debut. Henry Rodriguez followed with a scoreless inning, and when the Nationals rallied in the seventh, they were all of a sudden on to their best two relievers. The Cardinals looked overmatched against Tyler Clippard, and after walking Ryan Theriot and intentionally walking Albert Pujols, Drew Storen threw a couple of heavy sinkers to Lance Berkman, getting a comeback to end the game.

Werth: In his third game in the leadoff spot, Werth did an excellent job of getting on base, getting two hits in four at-bats and drawing a one-out walk in the seventh inning to get the Nationals’ rally started.

Goose Eggs
Maya: It’s not a stretch to say the Nationals were mostly in a hole last night because of the right-hander, who went back to pitching poorly after allowing one run in six innings his last time out. His pitches had little movement, and he gave up two homers to Pujols and Berkman in the first four innings. Then, in the fifth inning, he gave up three runs, leaving the game with two outs in the inning. He got hurt when Danny Espinosa was late to cover second base, costing the Nationals a double play on Berkman after Maya had gotten a ground ball, but he allowed two hits before that and two more after it.

Rick Ankiel: He had a bad night, straining his left intercostal muscles while catching a fly ball in the second inning and leaving the game for Roger Bernadina. He won’t play tonight and is day to day, but as with any injury in the core area, this one could keep Ankiel out for a few days.

In Case You Missed It:
* Manager Jim Riggleman said the decision not to pitch to Albert Pujols and to put the tying run on base in the ninth inning was based on the simple belief that there are certain players you don’t let beat you. Pujols had already homered once off Maya, and he was facing Storen with a shot to tie the game. “That doesn’t necessarily work - Berkman’s a great player, a great hitter. But we were going to play so deep on him that a double was not going to score Pujols, unless it was just freakish,” Riggleman said. “Pujols is that guy. It’s what you had to do to (Barry) Bonds years ago. Albert’s done it to us. He’s done it to other clubs. I just wouldn’t have slept good if he’d homered there, you know? Drew wanted to pitch to him, but I just didn’t want that to happen.” Said Storen: “As a competitor, obviously you want to face one of the best hitters ever. But obviously, a smart baseball decision. He can make me pay for a mistake there.”

* Zimmerman was in a major league game for the first time in nearly two months, working on new throwing mechanics designed to help him involve his whole body and prevent him from tearing an abdominal muscle again. Zimmerman worked with infield instructor Jeff Garber in Florida on trying to refine his mechanics, which were only tested once on a grounder to third. “It’s just using my legs and my core more,” Zimmerman said. “Not being able to use them for so long because I’ve been trying to compensate, that created bad habits and got (me) away from what I always do. If you’re hurt, you’re going to do things to get by. Now that I’m healthy and everything’s good, we just wanted to make it a point to get back to being efficient and fundamentally sound. There’s no reason not to, now that I’m able to do that.”

Talking Points:
1. There are plenty of other candidates for a Golden Goose from last night. Who did I miss? Let me know who you think should be recognized for their performance last night.

2. Did the game feel different to you with Zimmerman back, or was it just an isolated case of the Nationals beating up on a bullpen (including old friend Miguel Batista) that made a slew of bad pitches? And if you were there, what did you think of the atmosphere?

Leave your answers in the comments section. I’ll have a look later today at the Nationals’ short- and long-term first-base options, now that Adam LaRoche is having season-ending shoulder surgery.