GAME IN A NUTSHELL: The Nationals already were moving ever closer to elimination when they took the field for the opener of a weekend series with the Phillies. The crowd of 31,019 that gathered on South Capitol Street did so knowing the outcome of the game would be secondary to the reception the man on the mound, Jordan Zimmermann, would receive in what everyone knew would be his final home appearance with the organization.
That crowd, though, never got the opportunity to shower the right-hander with gratitude for his seven seasons of service. Zimmermann was roughed up by the Phillies for six runs, four of them coming on Aaron Altherr's inside-the-park grand slam past a diving Michael Taylor in shallow center field. Worse, he was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the fifth, removed from the game out of sight from a fan base that simply wanted to thank him.
That's the kind of night it was, with the Phillies' unheralded lineup homering four times while the Nationals struck out 10 times in seven innings against rookie Jerad Eickhoff. All the while, the Mets were cruising in Cincinnati, determined to reduce their magic number to clinch the NL East title to 1.
The champagne will be on ice Saturday inside the visitors' clubhouse at Great American Ball Park. It's too late now for the Nationals to do anything to stop what most have accepted as inevitable for several weeks.
HITTING LOWLIGHT: It was news when Bryce Harper went hitless against the Orioles earlier this week, the first time he had gone three straight games without a hit this season. But at least he drew seven walks in the series. Tonight, the Phillies offered Harper no free passes and still lived to tell the story. Eickhoff struck him out three times, with Harper never looking comfortable at the plate against the rookie right-hander. This was only the fourth time a pitcher struck out the presumptive NL MVP three times in a game this year. The others: Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner.
PITCHING LOWLIGHT: This had the potential to be something special for Zimmermann and a ballpark full of fans wanting to show appreciation for his seven seasons in a Nats uniform. It wound up being the polar opposite of something special. Zimmermann gave up six runs in five innings (the fifth time he has allowed that many runs this season after going through all of 2014 without doing it once). To be fair, his final line might have read completely different if not for Taylor's missed diving attempt on Altherr's sinking liner to center, resulting in the inside-the-park grand slam. That said, Zimmermann still served up two more conventional homers. All of that probably would have been excused by the crowd, though, had Zimmermann been pulled from the game mid-inning, with a chance to walk off the mound to a standing ovation. Instead, Wilmer Difo was sent up to pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the fifth. A crowd that understood what was most significant about this game — Zimmermann received significant applause when he entered from the bullpen, not a common occurrence — never got its opportunity to say thank you to arguably the best pitcher who has called D.C. home in the last decade.
KEY STAT: Aaron Altherr's inside-the-park grand slam was the first in the majors since Tampa Bay's Randy Winn on Oct. 3, 1999.
UP NEXT: Stephen Strasburg (10-7, 3.81) looks to continue his late-season surge when he takes the mound at 4:05 p.m. Saturday. The Phillies give the ball to rookie right-hander Aaron Nola (6-2, 3.84).
MORE NATIONALS: Pete Rose meets with baseball commissioner