Apr 5, 2014, 10:42 PM EST
GAME IN A NUTSHELL: For three innings Saturday night, the crowd of 37,841 at Nationals Park had ample reason to get excited and believe the hometown club would make progress in overcoming the psychological demons that are the rival Braves. And then Ryan Zimmerman attempted to make a routine throw across the diamond in the top of the fourth, and everything changed.
Zimmerman’s unsightly throwing error set in motion a downward spiral for the Nationals, who saw Stephen Strasburg give up six runs (only three earned) over his final 1 1/3 innings, a lineup that squandered plenty of opportunities against Atlanta ace Julio Teheran and manager Matt Williams ultimately pull Zimmerman from the game after five innings. There was no strategic reason for the benching, so the only two conclusions that can be drawn are that 1) Zimmerman is injured, or 2) Williams simply didn’t trust him to continue playing.
Thus the Nationals lost their second straight to the Braves, their 15th loss in their last 21 games against the chief NL East rivals. It’s incredibly early, less than a week into the season. But the longer they go without beating Atlanta, the larger that psychological hurdle becomes.
HITTING LOWLIGHT: The Nationals can’t say they didn’t give themselves chances to come back and make a game of this. They put the leadoff man on base in five of their first six innings against Teheran, and twice put their first two men on. But they were an abysmal 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. The lone hit? Adam LaRoche’s third-deck homer in the bottom of the first. Of the seven outs they made in those situations, six came either via flyball or strikeout. So not only were they not delivering in key spots, they weren’t even moving runners up.
PITCHING LOWLIGHT: Though it would be easy to look at the results and say Strasburg melted down after the Zimmerman error, that might be a stretch. Yes, he did let six of the eight batters he faced after the Zim gaffe reach safely, but none was especially hard-hit. Strasburg also labored earlier, pitching only one clean inning out of five overall. Regardless of the reason, this was the right-hander at less than his best. And the results were not pretty.
DEFENSIVE LOWLIGHT: When Zimmerman retreated to snag Andrelton Simmons’ chopper in the top of the fourth, the entire ballpark held its collective breath. This, unfortunately, is what it has come to, with everybody knowing the situation and scared to watch the result. Zimmerman’s subsequent throw was all too familiar to anyone who has been paying attention; it sailed high and wide, with very little oomph on it. Once it got past LaRoche, the Braves’ first run of the night scored. It’s only five games, but Zimmerman has had only two opportunities to make “routine” throws from third to first so far. Each produced an error.
KEY STAT: In 63 career innings against the Braves, Strasburg has allowed 63 hits. In 382 career innings against everyone else, he has allowed only 293 hits.
UP NEXT: The Nationals will need a quality performance from No. 5 starter Taylor Jordan in his season debut Sunday afternoon, with first pitch scheduled for 1:35 p.m. Alex Wood starts for the Braves, which could prompt Matt Williams to make some lineup changes for the series finale. Don’t be surprised if Bryce Harper and/or Adam LaRoche sits against the young lefty.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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