Associated Press photo
Sean Burnett gave up the game-changing, two-run homer to Matt Wieters in the eighth.
That's why Ryan Zimmerman is attempting to play through a nagging shoulder injury, why the veteran third baseman received a pain-killing shot one hour before Sunday's game in what could become a recurring theme for the rest of the season.
Zimmerman knows the Nationals' lineup needs all the help it can get right now, and who better to provide that spark than a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner?
"We need to score more," he said. "That's not in question."
True, Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Orioles was a direct result of Sean Burnett serving up a two-run homer to Matt Wieters in the bottom of the eighth, the first time the left-hander had blown a lead this year.
But the Nationals can ask their typically lights-out bullpen to protect such slim leads only so many times over a full season without accepting the occasional slip-up.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Burnett said. "You'd like to have a little bit of leniency. But a 1-run lead, our job is to come in and nail it down. And unfortunately I didn't do that today."
Had Burnett's teammates given him a cushion of even two or maybe three runs instead of one, perhaps the result would have been different. But these days, the Nationals can't count on their lineup producing anything more than the bare minimum on a daily basis.
Over their last nine games, the Nationals have given up 29 runs, a more-than-respectable average of 3.2. But during that same span, they've scored only 23 runs, an paltry average of 2.6. (It's probably no surprise their record in those games was 3-6.)
They had opportunities to add to Sunday's output but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Baltimore starter Jake Arrieta, who entered with a 5.83 ERA and an AL-leading nine losses.
The lone run-producing hit by a player wearing red and blue in this game? Zimmerman's RBI single in the third, perhaps his most-impressive hit in weeks, given the fact he drove a 95 mph fastball over shortstop J.J. Hardy's head despite the persistent shoulder pain that has afflicted him most of this season.
The difference for Zimmerman? The pain-killing shot that included cortisone and lidocaine and gave the ailing third baseman "relief" for the first time in a long time.
"Obviously, I wasn't performing," he said. "But to go out there today and feel a little bit like I could do the things that I've always been able to do gave me a little bit more confidence and just makes you happier."
Zimmerman wound up with a pair of hits that raised his batting average to .223, a well-stuck fly ball to center field and several highlight-reel plays at third base. That performance -- barely 12 hours after he finally admitted the extent to which his shoulder injury was affecting his swing and suggested he may need to spend time on the disabled list -- left the Nationals feeling better about his long-term prognosis.
Team doctors examined Zimmerman's shoulder Sunday morning and came away with the same diagnosis from two months ago: A sprained AC joint. They found no damage to any tendons or ligaments, only a bone-on-bone situation that's causing the pain.
At some point, preferably in the offseason, Zimmerman could have surgery to clean up the area. Recovery time would be roughly 4-6 weeks. For now, he believes he can continue to play, with the aid of the occasional pain-killing shot.
"I can play through this," he said. "And that's what I plan to do for the rest of the year."
The Nationals can only hope the treatment now only allows Zimmerman to take the field each day but also allows him to rediscover the power stroke that made him such a dangerous hitter through the first six seasons of his big-league career. Even so, a healthy Zimmerman might not be enough to carry a lineup that has scored only 262 runs this season (fourth fewest in the majors).
Sunday's game saw the Nationals get a total of two hits from players not named Zimmerman or Bryce Harper (who singled in the first inning and then hustled to turn a routine base hit to center into a electrifying double in the sixth inning).
That second Harper hit, which drew oohs and aahs from the bipartisan crowd of 41,794 at Camden Yards, put the Nationals in golden position to add to their 1-0 lead. But Zimmerman struck out swinging at a 2-2 breaking ball low and outside. And after Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked, Michael Morse struck out swinging at another 2-2 breaking ball, then Ian Desmond popped out to end the inning.
"I still think we're not ... a lot of hitters are doing some over-aggressiveness," Johnson said. "We're trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark instead of making good swings. But we're getting there."
The silver lining to all this is that the Nationals, in spite of their offensive woes, will hold at least a 2 1/2-game lead in the NL East come Monday morning. They also just survived what could be the toughest stretch of their season -- 32 consecutive games against only NL East and AL East opponents -- with an 18-14 record.
They also know that while pitching wins championships, a little offense every now and then certainly helps.
"We want to score more runs," Zimmerman said. "I think this whole series kind of shows you how good both of these teams' pitching is. It's not easy to score runs, but we definitely need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities."
Whether Zimmerman's new treatment plan can keep him in the lineup -- and, more importantly, whether he can produce again -- could go a long way toward answering this club's most-pressing question.