GAME IN A NUTSHELL: It's only April 24, but the Nationals recognize this 3-city, 10-game road trip through the NL East presents a real opportunity to make up some ground in the division. So they took the field at Marlins Park tonight with a sharp effort, getting dominant and efficient work from Jordan Zimmermann, some stellar defense from Denard Span and others and several quality at-bats early on. But then the game was decided late in an all-too-familiar fashion.
Bryce Harper drove in each of the Nationals' first two runs, via a sacrifice fly in the fourth and a 2-out RBI single in the sixth. The latter hit tied the game after the Marlins scored two quick runs off Zimmermann in the fifth, the only blip on the right-hander's evening.
So the Nats found themselves in a tie game late, a familiar position. And the result was familiar as well, with the lineup unable to convert prime scoring opportunities and the bullpen unable to prevent the winning run from crossing the plate. This time, it was Martin Prado's RBI single off Aaron Barrett in the bottom of the eighth that proved the difference and dealt the Nationals a frustrating loss to begin this long road trip.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: Harper has impressed plenty of people early this season with some quality at-bats, showing real patience at the plate. Tonight, he put four of them together in succession. He bunted for a hit to lead off the second, drove a ball to center field for a sac fly in the fourth, sent a 2-out single to right for an RBI in the sixth and then drew a 2-out walk in the eighth. If Harper can continue to put together several strong at-bats on a given night, he really is going to do some serious damage this season.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: After getting battered around by the Red Sox and then showing uncharacteristic wildness against the Phillies, Zimmermann looked much more like himself tonight. Which is to say, he worked fast, threw strikes and got quick outs. Zimmermann needed only 79 pitches to complete six innings, failing to issue any walks. His slider was devastating early on, producing three straight strikeouts of Martin Prado, Giancarlo Stanton and Michael Morse. He easily could've come back out for the seventh, but the situation dictated that Matt Williams send up a pinch-hitter.
KEY STAT: With a fourth-inning gap shot tonight, Ryan Zimmerman notched his 300th career double. That ranks third in franchise history, behind only Tim Wallach (360) and Jose Vidro (304).
UP NEXT: Game 2 of this weekend series is a late-afternoon affair, with first pitch at 4:10 p.m. Stephen Strasburg (1-1, 4.50) faces fellow right-hander Tom Koehler (1-2, 6.75).