There have been few games this year where the Nationals can legitimately say they'd provided enough offense to win, but got hurt by their pitching staff. They were blown out in the first week of the season against the Braves, lost a 7-4 game to the Marlins when their bullpen fell apart and got beat 8-4 against the Mets two weekends ago.
But tonight's 6-4 loss to the Mets, possibly more than any other game the Nationals have lost this season, rested primarily on a pitching staff that's been fairly consistent. Jordan Zimmermann said he felt as good as he has all season on the mound, but gave up five runs on nine hits in 5 1/3 innings against a streaking Mets team.
Two of those runs came in after he'd left the mound, when Doug Slaten hung a slider that Josh Thole sliced down the left field line; the two runs that scored were the seventh and eighth to cross the plate of the 19 he's inherited this year. When the Nationals pulled within a run, Brian Broderick and Sean Burnett combined to allow an insurance run for the Mets.
The Nationals' pitching staff hasn't necessarily dominated games this year, but it's kept the team within striking distance. In some ways, it did that on Tuesday. But when Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth combined to hit three homers, the Nationals lost because their pitching staff couldn't hold the Mets down when it had to.
Zimmermann, who struck out just one batter, didn't have a single swinging strike tonight. He's the only pitcher in the Nationals' rotation who's capable of striking out batters consistently, and though he's been able to keep his pitch count down (he threw just 73 in 5 1/3 innings tonight), he also needs to generate strikeouts from time to time.
"He pitched a winnable game tonight," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He wasn't at the top of his game. But if something happened here or there, we could have won that ballgame. ... There's going to be some ups and downs coming off (Tommy John) surgery."
If Zimmermann is going to elevate himself to the top of the Nationals' rotation, though, he's going to have to pitch the kind of dominant games where he's a step ahead of hitters. Strikeouts, though they'll rack up his pitch count, are a part of that. His defense isn't going to be able to stop every ball put in play, though while he's still working back from Tommy John surgery and operating under stricter pitch limits, a pitch-to-contact approach might seem more workable for now.
"I feel fine. I'd rather get ground ball outs than swing-and-miss strikeouts and keep the pitch count low," Zimmermann said. "I'm happy with ground ball outs."
The place where the game fell apart, though, was when Riggleman pulled Zimmermann in the sixth inning after he gave up two singles to Jason Bay and Ike Davis. Riggleman said he'd considered getting Slaten to face Davis, but decided to give Zimmermann one more batter.
"Once Davis got the hit, I felt like, if we're going to get beat in that part of the order, it's going to have to be with a left-handed pitcher," Riggleman said. "Unfortunately, the ball was just out of reach in left field."
Much of the damage done against Slaten this year has been on singles and balls just out of reach of defenders; the double he gave up was only his third extra-base hit. But his main job is to get left-handers out, and they're 5-for-13 against him this year.
"That's the key to my job, probably, is coming in and getting guys out with guys on base," Slaten said. "Right now, there's a few dropped in. I'm still going out with confidence, going out there and throwing pitches and throwing strikes. My luck will change a little bit."
On Tuesday, though, Zimmermann and Slaten just didn't have answers when they needed them.