Associated Press photo
Danny Espinosa and the Nats have scored just three runs in innings 1-7 this season.
So in the wake of a frustrating, 4-3 loss to the Cubs this afternoon -- one that saw Jeff Samardzija shove it down the Nationals' throats until Adam LaRoche's two-run homer with two outs in the ninth -- is there anything that can be done to try to generate some offense before, you know, they sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame?"
"Some homers would be nice," Ian Desmond cracked before turning serious. "I mean, it's the third game. We all had great springs."
Success in March, however, doesn't always translate to success in April. And right now, anybody in the Nationals' lineup not named Desmond (5-for-13) or LaRoche (5-for-12, two homers) is finding that out the hard way.
The lack of offensive punch have been especially prevalent early in these games. During this three-game series at Wrigley Field, the Nationals scored a total of three runs in innings 1-through-7. They scored nine runs in the eighth and ninth innings.
"I think it's too early to worry about that," LaRoche said. "I think it's just part of the way it's been going right now. It'd be nice to score some more early, give our pitchers a little cushion. Those guys have been doing a great a job coming in."
The Nationals certainly couldn't find much fault with anything today's starter, Jordan Zimmermann, did during his seven innings on the hill. The young right-hander aggressively went after Chicago's lineup, mowing through guys so efficiently that at one point he retired seven batters on a total of 15 pitches.
The key to Zimmermann's efficiency? He threw first-pitch strikes to an incredible 19 of the first 23 batters he faced. And he was able to get ahead of hitters with his entire arsenal, not strictly his fastball.
"It definitely helps," he said. "When I've got a hitter's count and I can throw a slider in there, and they're out front and rolling over, popping it up, it's always beneficial."
Alas, Zimmermann was done in yet again by the one thing that's out of his control: Run support. It became an all-too-common theme in 2011, and it felt all too familiar in his 2012 debut.
Zimmermann has now suffered 12 losses since the beginning of last season. In seven of those losses, he's allowed two or fewer earned runs.
There's not much the right-hander can say anymore about the lack of support, other than insist it doesn't get to him.
"It doesn't change my approach," he said. "I'm just going to keep throwing strikes and try to get as many outs as possible."
Zimmermann might actually have escaped without taking the loss had the Nationals' bullpen been able to keep the deficit at 2-1. But Ryan Mattheus, so effective yesterday in keeping his teammates within striking distance before mounting their late rally, gave up two runs in the bottom of the eighth, digging the Nationals into a deeper hole.
Even so, the visiting dugout sprung to life when LaRoche belted Samardzija's 110th pitch of the afternoon over the right-field fence, trimming the deficit to 4-3 and bringing a hush over the crowd of 31,973 that now had to hope closer Carlos Marmol could actually record the save for the first time in three tries.
"I mean, I think we're a pretty confident club," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "And never out of any game, that's for sure."
Werth made the Cubs faithful sweat it out even more when he drew a five-pitch walk off Marmol, but the beleaguered Chicago closer quickly rebounded to get Xavier Nady to pop out and end the game.
Thus the Nationals left town with mixed feelings. They could easily have swept the series, but they just as easily could have been swept.
In the end, they head to New York at 2-1, pleased to own a winning record but hopeful they might actually take an early lead at some point in this young season.
"I think you look back at those first two games, and if we don't come through with some big hits late -- which, again, doesn't always happen -- we could have lost those," LaRoche said. "So it's nice to win two out of three. Again, I don't want to press at all, but it'd be nice to get some runs early."