Zimmerman homer caps emotional day for Nats

Zimmerman homer caps emotional day for Nats
July 27, 2013, 1:00 am
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Clippard responds to Storen being optioned to minors

The emotional ups and downs of a baseball season can be draining for any club, let alone one expected to be among the sport's best but slogging its way through a prolonged train-wreck stretch of games. What the Nationals have experienced over the last 36 hours alone would normally be enough to fill a month.

It began Thursday afternoon with a wild victory over the Pirates that saw their closer blow a four-run lead in the top of the ninth, only to see their young star produce his first career game-winning homer in the bottom of the inning.

It continued Friday afternoon with an ugly, lopsided, 11-0 loss to the Mets that saw their former closer sent to the mound facing a 5-run deficit despite the fact he was battling flu-like symptoms and wasn't expected to pitch at all.

And then it was capped off Friday evening in the nightcap of a wild doubleheader with a familiar face providing a familiar thrill to lead the Nationals to a 2-1 win, only to be trumped in some ways by the postgame demotion of that former closer to the minors and critical comments from a teammate lobbed toward the organization.

"That's baseball," Ryan Zimmerman said at the end of it all. "Unfortunately, it's a roller-coaster ride, and we've been down it more than we've been up this year. But we've just got to keep going. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got to go out there every day and try to win."

The Nationals somehow have managed to win two of their last three games, perhaps temporarily putting a hold on their free-fall down the NL East standings. They've actually managed to pull themselves back into second place in the division, though they remain four games under the .500 mark and stand 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Braves.

At this point, though, the Nationals are less concerned about their standing in the big picture and more focused on doing something positive each passing day.

There were no positives to come out of the opener of this day-night doubleheader, only a solemn clubhouse following an 11-run manhandling by the Mets, who torched Jordan Zimmermann for five runs and then Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen for six more in the ninth.

"Do we have to talk about it?" manager Davey Johnson asked as he sat down for his Game 1 news conference.

The less said about that game, the better, though the most significant development might well have been Storen's ninth-inning meltdown. Despite declaring the right-hander unlikely to pitch at all on Friday due to the flu, Johnson surprisingly summoned him to bail out Mattheus in what had already become a lost cause.

Four pitches later, Storen had surrendered a single, a double and a homer, allowing five runs to cross the plate.

"He got to feeling a little better," Johnson said when asked after that game how Storen suddenly became available. "Had to use him. Tried to get by with Mattheus, but took him as many pitches as he could throw without taking a chance on hurting him."

Storen's name would resurface at night's end, but before that happened, the Nationals had another game to play. Only two hours after suffering a soul-crushing loss, they were back on the field for the nightcap, left to try to beat one of the best young pitchers in baseball.

The Nationals didn't do much of anything against Matt Harvey, some scratching out one run in eight innings against the right-hander, thanks to a fifth-inning error by Daniel Murphy. But they also got a spectacular pitching performance from their own starter, Ross Ohlendorf, who held the Mets to one run over seven innings and 114 pitches.

Summoned out of the bullpen to make a spot start in the doubleheader, the journeyman right-hander continued his out-of-nowhere, dominant season, which now includes a 1.87 ERA over 33 2/3 innings.

"I certainly feel good about what I've done when I've gotten to start," Ohlendorf said. "I feel good with how I've done out of the bullpen, too. I've been really happy with how I've been pitching. I just need to keep going."

Thanks to Ohlendorf, the Nationals kept this a 1-1 game heading to the bottom of the ninth. That's when Zimmerman took over, launching a 3-1 fastball from LaTroy Hawkins over the fence in right-center to send the crowd of 33,689 into a frenzy.

It was the ninth walk-off homer of Zimmerman's career, more than any player in major-league history has hit before age 30, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"Just worked into a good count," he said. "I just finally didn't try to do too much. Good win."

A good win, yes, but not one the Nationals were able to completely celebrate afterward once news came down that Storen had been optioned to Class AAA Syracuse, a transaction that left an emotional Tyler Clippard criticizing the organization for its treatment of his teammate and friend.

"It's one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization," Clippard said. "But at the same time, that's the decision that was made and we have to move forward as a team. We have great guys in this locker room that are going to get it done. We're going to make a playoff push at the end of the season, I have no doubt about that. But this is a tough day."

A tough day, and a long day full of ups and downs for a Nationals club that has experienced plenty of both this season.