VIERA, Fla. - Jordan Zimmermann hit a wall, finally proving human after starting spring training with 11 scoreless innings. Adam LaRoche is hitting his stride, a little earlier than usual for an admitted slow starter.
Those were the two extremes in the Nationals' 10-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday. While wins and losses mean nothing at this point, Washington's fifth consecutive defeat was notable for Zimmermann's first bad Grapefruit League outing and LaRoche's continued offensive surge.
Zimmermann labored through four innings, unable to keep the ball down when he wanted to and victimized by mostly softly hit grounders that found holes. He allowed six runs on eight hits, walked two and uncorked a pair of wild pitches in a 69-pitch effort, departing after four innings because of his high pitch total.
"I just fell behind in the counts and when you fall behind you're going to be in trouble most of the day," he said matter-of-factly. "It just seemed the leadoff hitter, pretty much every inning, got on base and (I was) pitching in trouble. I guess if I keep the ball, that stuff won't happen. The balls weren't hit that hard; a lot of ground balls today, but it was just up in the zone and I just fell behind."
For now, Zimmermann is taking the glass-half-full approach to a disappointing outing. He's healthy. With the exception of Yadier Molina's ground-rule double in the fifth, he didn't give up many hard hits, and he knows what his problem was and how he can correct it.
"You're going to give up runs," Zimmermann said. "You just don't want to have those innings where you give up multiple runs. The first three innings were OK. The fourth inning there, things just got out of control. The pitch limit was pretty high and I gave up a four-spot."
If Zimmermann's perfect spring before Friday's bump in the road was a surprise, the notion of LaRoche finding an offensive comfort zone so early in camp somewhat unexpected.
Especially by LaRoche, who figured he would have to use most of his spring training at-bats to get his mechanics down. LaRoche, who was held out of early games with soreness in his left shoulder, went 3-for-3 with three RBIs and raised his Grapefruit League average from .310 to .375. He now has eight RBIs.
"It's coming around. It's pretty typical every year - you may go two or three at-bats feeling really good and two or three at-bats and losing it," LaRoche said. "That's the beauty of getting 50, 60 at-bats during spring training. You kind of work through those kinks, try to get a little more consistent. It feels good, for where we're at in spring."
LaRoche usually has to tinker a little bit with his swing until he starts feeling like he's in a good rhythm. As a general rule, that doesn't occur until later in spring training, maybe even early in the regular season.
"With my swing and approach, there's a few more moving parts," he explained. "So it takes me (a while). Some guys can come to spring and say they need 20, 30 at-bats. I need what I get, which is usually around 50 or 60, something like that. It takes all of those and sometimes a few more to get right."
Given the shoulder setback that delayed LaRoche's participation in games, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman marveled at how quickly the first baseman has progressed.
"He missed a few (games) early; his arm was a little tender," Riggleman said. "We had him out of a few games early, so he's playing catch-up in terms of the at-bats. I'm particularly encouraged by the at-bats against left-handed pitching we've seen lately."
Now, onto today's Ker-chings (best performances) and Ker-plunks (dubious achievements):
Brian Broderick: The right-hander pitched a scoreless fifth inning, lowering his ERA to 0.93 in six appearances out of the bullpen. There's no better way to force your way onto a roster - even as a Rule 5 pick - than to perform, and Broderick is doing it.
LaRoche: In addition to his offense, LaRoche flashed some leather, too, making a nice pick of a low throw from third baseman Alberto Gonzalez in the second, snagging a Skip Schumaker bouncer on a tricky hop to end the fifth and playing second baseman Brian Bixler's short-hop throw for the first out in the sixth. Nats fans used to complaining about Adam Dunn's defense at first base are going to have to retire those opinions. "If you pick those guys up a few times, they tend to relax and start making my job a lot easier," LaRoche said. "That's kind of my goal now: Get their confidence up, get them comfortable throwing over there to me so when the lights come on, they're not afraid to let 'er go."
Jayson Werth: The Nats' new right fielder hit an RBI double and walked twice in three at-bats. He scored two runs. Werth's average is creeping upward; it's at .194 with the Mendoza Line in sight.
Michael Morse: The Nats' new left fielder remains a defensive work in progress. In the second inning, Morse couldn't decide between playing a bloop by Schumaker on a hop or diving to try and make a catch. He chose to dive, misplaying a likely single into a run-scoring double. At bat, Morse ended an inning in each of his first three at-bats, sandwiching two double-play grounders around a strikeout. His 5-4-3 GIDP in the fifth came against Blake King, who had walked the bases loaded. Morse finished 0-for-4.
Drew Storen: Another frustrating outing for the right-hander, who is not only pitching himself out of contention to be part of the closer committee, but is quickly jeopardizing his spot on the 25-man roster. In a three-run St. Louis seventh, Storen allowed back-to-back homers to Daniel Descalso and Mark Hamilton (overall, he yielded four hits and a walk). The Cards got two hard-hit balls deep to the outfield for flyball outs. Storen's ERA sits at 12.79, and people are wondering what's wrong with him.
What to watch: The little things sometimes continue to elude the top-of-the-order hitters. Bunting for a base hit was obviously a key for the Nats in the third inning, but neither Nyjer Morgan nor Ian Desmond, the first two hitters, could successfully get on base via the bunt. At least Desmond got a bunt down before being thrown out at first by catcher Yadier Molina; Morgan tried and failed. The Nats are making Morgan, Desmond and Danny Espinosa bunt regularly so they'll have that expertise down-pat in the regular season. For Desmond and Espinosa, the ability to lay one down makes them more useful hitters (and keeps them from being enamored of longer swings). In Morgan's case, he needs to be able to use his speed and the ability to bunt would help him do that. Hopefully, practice will make perfect.
Coming up next: Right-hander Jason Marquis takes his miniscule 0.75 ERA to Port St. Lucie, where the Nationals will face the Mets at 1:10 p.m. on Saturday. Marquis is having the kind of success this spring the Nationals envisioned when they inked him to a two-year $15 million deal two winters ago. No, he's not going to make anyone forget the absence of Stephen Strasburg, but if he can gobble up six innings a start and keep the Nats in games, he'll take the strain off the bullpen and help solidify a rotation that needs veteran leadership.