Far from the friendly confines of Nationals Park, all the way across the country, the Nationals took the field in Seattle Friday night hoping to shake the funk that plagued them in Philadelphia and derailed their hot streak.
Accomplishing that would not be easy. Staring down from the mound for the Mariners would be Felix Hernandez, perennial Cy Young candidate and he of the well-deserved moniker “King Felix.” Hernandez entered the game looking as daunting as ever: 13-4 record, ERA of 2.07, and an ERA+ of 180.
Most of the Nats had barely, if ever, faced Hernandez coming into Friday, so there was certainly a sense of the unknown, a certain feeling of mystery as the teams took the field.
It took the Nationals only two hitters to shatter that air.
Following a Denard Span flyout, Anthony Rendon stepped to the plate looking for something to drive. A fastball stayed up in the zone, and Rendon made Felix pay, depositing the pitch in the deepest part of SafeCo Field.
In spite of the early lead, though, Jordan Zimmermann (9-5), who entered the game with a record of 3-0 in his last five starts, looked as if he might choke the Nats’ chances away.
With just one out in the bottom of the first, Zimmermann allowed Dustin Ackley to triple off of the center field wall. Jordan pitched carefully to Cano, the next better up, opting to walk him rather than surrender a big hit to the Mariners’ hard hitting second baseman.
That strategy failed to pay off. A single off the bat of Kendrys Morales bounced off of the glove of Adam LaRoche and trickled into right field, scoring Ackley. The next batter up, Kyle Seager, singled in Cano with a ball that Rendon, trying too hard for the double play, nearly threw into the outfield.
A coaching visit to the mound followed, and soon after came two more outs. Zimmermann had prevented any more damage, but the Nats still trailed 2-1.
Any hope for the Mariners that Hernandez would settle down and switch on the cruise control (which he’s certainly capable of doing) vanished in the top of the third.
It was Anthony Rendon once again acting as the catalyst, this time by drawing a two-out walk on a borderline check swing. Jayson Werth then provided the power, crushing an off-speed pitch into the same section of center field bleachers that Rendon had found earlier.
Back on top, 3-2, Jordan and the Nationals took the field again, and once again, Zimmermann struggled. This time, though, with runners at the corners and one out, the Nats starter rose to the occasion. With two strikeouts, Zimmermann walked off the field with the lead still intact.
The lead would only grow after that. Ian Desmond took his turn at bullying Felix next. After fighting off pitch after pitch after pitch, Desmond finally got a hold of the tenth offering. The ball left the yard in a flash. Wilson Ramos was so impressed with the display that, two batters later, he hit a home run of his own to take the lead to three.
The game remained 5-2 Washington until the top of the eighth, when Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos went back-to-back with solo shots to push the lead to five. For Harper, it was his eighth of the season; for Ramos, it was his ninth, and his second of the night.
The sacrifice fly by Adam LaRoche in the ninth to push the score to 8-2 was purely cosmetic, as was the two-out double by Endy Chavez to bring the final run differential down to five. The Nationals walked off the field with an 8-3 win that couldn’t have looked more impressive.
The storyline entering Friday night’s game was pitching: the established dominance of King Felix versus the young talent of Jordan Zimmermann. That storyline was quickly thrown out the window.
Less than four innings into the game, the Nationals had mustered five runs on four homers. They were making Hernandez look more like a jester than a king. It was the first time Hernandez had allowed four homers in a start in his career, and the crowd at SafeCo seemed docile.
The King’s Court, a rowdy group of fans known for wildly waving yellow signs emblazoned with a “K” wearing a crown, didn’t have much to cheer for, either. Hernandez didn’t notch his first strikeout of the evening until the top of the fifth, when Adam LaRoche was rung up on a pitch that was borderline at best. As it turned out, that was the only K that Hernandez would register the entire night.
It’s impossible to say that Zimmermann didn’t outpitch Hernandez. He finished the game with 2 earned runs on 7 hits with 8 strikeouts, lowering his ERA to 2.93 in the process. Washington needed him to stay in his groove to get their groove back as a team. Jordan answered the call. The Nationals will finish August 6-0 in games he started.
The Nationals will try to keep the train rolling back toward another long winning streak tomorrow night, as Stephen Strasburg (10-10) takes the mound against Roenis Elias (9-11).
Notes: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Rafael Soriano each pitched one inning in relief. Soriano was the only one to surrender a run. Seattle used relivers Joe Beimel (2 ER), Brandon Maurer (0 ER), and Fernando Rodney (1 ER).
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