Thursday, April 14, 2011, 9:23 p.m.
Updated at 11:29 p.m.
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By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
It's entirely possible the Nationals won't get a better pitching performance all season than they got Thursday night from Jordan Zimmermann, who carried a perfect game against the Phillies into the sixth and wound up allowing one earned run without issuing a walk in seven-plus innings.
That Zimmermann still took the loss despite that dominant performance was evidence of two facts: 1) Cliff Lee is really, really good, and 2) The Nationals' lineup is mired in a serious funk right now.
Zimmermann's gem earned rave reviews from both clubhouses, but it wasn't nearly enough to overcome those two troubling facts. The end result: a 4-0 loss to the Phillies, who got a three-hit, 12-strikeout masterpiece from Lee to capture this series.
"I'm a Jordan Zimmermann fan to the end," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I know he's got great stuff, the way he goes out and battles. That's Cliff Lee out there. A lot of pitchers would maybe have shied away. But he kept on going, pitch-for-pitch with him."
As good as Zimmermann was in his third start of the season, 10th since returning from Tommy John surgery, he was no match for Lee. One night after teammate Roy Halladay tossed a complete game, the lefty one-upped him by tossing a shutout and needing a scant 99 pitches to do it.
Lee, who declined an offer from the Nationals (not to mention the Yankees) over the winter so he could return to Philadelphia, was at his absolute best on a gorgeous night at Nationals Park. He went to a three-ball count only three times, struck out five straight batters at one junction and never appeared the least bit tired in going the distance.
"He just looked like he got sharper as the game went on," manager Jim Riggleman said. "He was good early, but he just got better and better. ... That's what he does. That's why he's one of the best."
With 15 more games against the Phillies, the Nationals surely will see plenty more of Lee this season. They'll also see plenty more of Halladay and Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, not to mention other NL East aces like Atlanta's Tim Hudson and Florida's Josh Johnson.
Is that a discouraging thought for a club that currently sports a .213 batting average, 29th out of 30 teams in the majors?
"If we're going to move in the direction this organization thinks we're going to move in, we're going to have to beat pitchers like that," Desmond said. "I don't think anybody in here is discouraged, by any means. Maybe a little bit frustrated. But definitely not discouraged."
If the Nationals are going to start beating the likes of Lee and Co., they're going to have to start getting significantly better production at the plate, especially from a couple of key spots in their lineup: the No. 1 and No. 5 holes.
Washington's leadoff hitters (ie. Desmond for all but one game this season) are now batting a collective .167 with a .211 on-base percentage. It's even worse at home, where Desmond is 0-for-25 with one walk.
"We've just got to get something going offensively," the second-year shortstop said. "It doesn't help that the leadoff guy hasn't been on base at home yet. It's a fact. I've got to get on base if the team wants to score runs."
And the guy who has hit fifth most of the season (Michael Morse) has got to start driving in teammates who reach base. With an 0-for-3 showing Thursday night, Morse is now a paltry 4-for-33 with three RBI and 13 strikeouts.
Might some lineup changes be in store? Probably not for Friday's series opener against the Brewers, with left-hander Chris Narveson getting the ball. The current group will simply have to hit its way out of this slump.
"They're agonizing over it," Riggleman said. "They're kicking it around in there. They're not too happy about these last two nights' performances offensively. They'll get with hitting coach Rick Eckstein and see if we can come up with something. But we'll be putting pretty much the same lineup out there and believe in it. We just have to know it's going to turn around."
If and when the offense does turn around, the Nationals can only hope they continue to get the kind of quality pitching that has defined the first two weeks of this season. Ten times in 12 games, Washington's starter has allowed three earned runs or fewer.
Zimmermann has done it in all three of his outings, none better than Thursday's gem. The right-handed retired the first 15 batters he faced, pumping out 95 mph fastballs and 85 mph sliders that had the Phillies' dugout in awe.
"I had to hit off that guy, and he might have had the best fastball I had ever seen," Lee said of his counterpart. "That guy looked good to me. He has some serious zip on it. It said 94-95, but it looked harder than that to me and it showed. He shut our lineup down for half the game, and that's hard to do."
Zimmermann's lone mistake came two pitches into the sixth inning, when he hung a curveball to Carlos Ruiz and watched the Philadelphia catcher launch the ball off the top of the left-field fence. Zimmermann wound up allowing three runs more runs before departing in the eighth, but all were unearned after errors by Jerry Hairston and Danny Espinosa.
In the end, it all went for naught because the Nationals had no answer for Lee. As encouraging as the sight of Zimmermann going toe-to-toe with one of baseball's best was, the end result was another loss.
"It's tough to get runs off a guy like that," Zimmermann said. "If you can get one or two, you're lucky. Our offense just ran into a little buzz saw these last two games."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.