It should have been a pitchers’ duel at its finest: Clayton Kershaw vs. Jordan Zimmermann in the final game of a marquee series.
Instead, the Washington Nationals (48-50) lost miserably to the Los Angeles Dodgers (49-47) as they watched the rock of their rotation crumble, resulting in a 9-2 final score.
With the way the Nationals have been hitting lately, a poor offensive showing against Cy Young winner Kershaw was all but expected. But the silence of the bats was transformed from disappointing to gut wrenching when Zimmermann completely fell apart.
Zimmermann’s performance was one of the worst of his career. He pitched just two innings – his shortest outing – and allowed seven runs, only the third time in his 101 starts he has allowed that many or more.
The Dodgers made Zimmermann throw 58 pitches as they collected nine hits, two home runs and two walks.
Matt Kemp hit Zimmermann the hardest, announcing his return from the disabled list with a bang. He homered in his first at-bat, and singled in his second, both of which came in the second inning. Kemp’s three hits for the day were one shy of the total for the entire Nats offense (four), and his three RBIs were more than Washington could muster for themselves.
Zimmermann’s poor performance was so uncharacteristic that it called into question the severity of the lingering neck injury he has been dealing with this year.
However, manager Davey Johnson called Zimmermann’s condition the good news of the day.
“That was the best he’s felt in a long time,” Johnson said. “[After the long rest] he didn’t have his command and wasn’t sharp. … He should be fine. He might be past that [injury].”
Kershaw lived up to his half of the pitcher’s duel assignment, throwing seven innings on 97 pitches, walking none and striking out nine.
Unfortunately for Kershaw, Jayson Werth was in the lineup on Sunday. Otherwise, he may have dominated the Nats’ impotent offense enough to throw a no hitter.
But, Werth spoiled that scheme as he took Kershaw deep twice in the 10th multi-homer game of his career.
Werth essentially accounted for the entirety of the Nationals’ offense. He went 2-for-3 with his two homers and a walk in the ninth inning. The only other Nationals to touch the bases were Kurt Suzuki and Chad Tracy, who both singled, and Adam LaRoche, who reached on an error.
Despite facing a pitcher as talented as Kershaw, that type of pathetic performance has become a trend for the Nationals, and has been enough to incite frustration in their fans and manager alike.
“I’m the one that’s frustrated,” Johnson said. “I’m the one that has trouble sleeping. But I feel like we’re going to be fine.”
Time for that feeling may be running out. After the sweep by the Dodgers, the Nationals have lost eight of their last 10, and are only three games ahead of the fourth-place New York Mets.
With the standings falling to such a slim margin, Ross Ohlendorf made a strong case on Sunday to be the starting pitcher the Nationals rely on to help them win one game of the Nats vs. Mets double header on Friday.
With Zimmermann unable to complete even a third of the game, Ohlendorf was the bullpen’s hero. He took over for Zimmermann in the third, and pitched six scoreless innings. He gave up two earned runs on six hits and one walk, and struck out six.
Ohlendorf has been tremendous for the Nationals since joining the team on June 12, throwing for a 2.03 ERA through 26 and two-thirds innings. His impressive performance on Sunday and before gave Johnson the confidence to slate him to be Friday’s spot starter, which Johnson confirmed after the game.
The coming series against the Mets is likely to be a more important series than anyone would have predicted. As the Nats’ preseason goal of the postseason begins to fade into the outline of a dream, the least they can do is strive for .500 and save themselves from further embarrassment.