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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

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Uncomfortable Nats upended by Bucs

Something about the Nationals Thursday night looked, well, uncomfortable.

Whether it was Jordan Zimmermann struggling to establish a rhythm on the mound or locate his fastball, or whether it was a lineup full of hitters who were hogtied by right-hander James McDonald, there was something of an uneasy feeling to this 5-3 loss to the Pirates.

"Well," manager Davey Johnson said as he sat down for his postgame news conference, "that was a tough one."

Tough, because for more than five innings the Nationals had no business sharing this field with their opponents, then nearly stormed all the way back before faltering late when presented a chance to complete the comeback.

Tough, because Zimmermann slogged his way through his roughest outing of the season, his first non-quality start in eight tries. The right-hander's mistakes were obvious: He served up three home runs in six innings, one to light-hitting catcher Rod Barajas, two to uber-talented center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

"I didn't feel very good at all," Zimmermann said. "I was flying open, and I wasn't able to locate my fastball at all. The breaking stuff was good, but when you can't locate your fastball, you're going to be in trouble and it's going to be a long game."

The first two homers -- McCutchen's solo shot in the first, Barajas' two-run blast in the fourth -- came on poorly located fastballs. The third, though, came on a first-pitch slider to McCutchen ... who still sent it flying over the left-field fence for his 10th home run in 23 career games against the Nationals.

"I'm hoping he was sitting first-pitch slider," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Because if he's not sitting one, it seemed even more impressive. He's one of those special players that can do everything. He's fun to watch. I just wish we didn't have to watch him so much when we play him."

The Nationals can thank Major League Baseball's schedulers for limiting this series to only two games, because there's no telling how much more damage McCutchen would have inflicted if given the opportunity to face the Nationals pitching staff again. In five games over the last 10 days against them, the All-Star center fielder went 10-for-17 with four homers, six RBI and three walks. Oh, he also robbed Adam LaRoche of extra bases Thursday night with a fifth-inning, highlight-reel catch against the fence.

"I mean, we certainly haven't figured out how to pitch him," said manager Davey Johnson, who admitted he contemplated intentionally walking McCutchen. "He's got to be hitting about five or six hundred off us. He looks awful comfortable in there."

Zimmermann had to battle throughout his six innings of work, needing a season-high 107 pitches just to reach that point.

"He was rushing. He was falling," Johnson said. "That's the worst I've seen him with his command early in a ballgame."

Not that it would have mattered much had Zimmermann been lights-out early on, because the Nationals weren't going to touch McDonald no matter what. The unheralded right-hander broke out a devastating curveball and baffled Johnson's lineup, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced.

By the time Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with one out of the fifth, McDonald had yet to put a man on base. That run at perfection ended when the 19-year-old drew a walk, but it wasn't until Jesus Flores led off the sixth with a double that McDonald's no-hit bid was finally quashed.

"You know, that curveball, we just weren't getting on it for whatever reason," LaRoche said. "Couldn't figure it out until late. And by the time we did there in that one inning, he was out of the game. Too little, too late."

That one inning was the bottom of the sixth, during which Zimmerman laced a two-out, two-run single and LaRoche recorded only the 10th triple of his career. All of this brought the Nationals to within a run, but they couldn't push across one more despite several late opportunities.

With runners on second and third and one out in the seventh, rookie Steve Lombardozzi tapped a comebacker to the mound and Desmond struck out swinging at a 3-2 slider from reliever Juan Cruz.

Two innings later, Desmond again had an opportunity to drive in the tying run when he dug in against Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan with two on and two out. Again, Desmond struck out, his fourth K of the game.

"I was looking heater all the way and I just missed 'em," Desmond said. "I missed a lot of balls tonight, fouled them off. I don't remember a time in my life I've ever fouled off 20 pitches in a game. But just wasn't getting the barrel there."

A fitting analysis of a frustrating ballgame for the Nationals.

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Ozuna homers, Cardinals beat Nationals for 8th straight win

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Ozuna homers, Cardinals beat Nationals for 8th straight win

Marcell Ozuna homered and Austin Gomber tossed six shutout innings to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a 4-2 win over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night.

St. Louis has won a season-high eight straight. The Cardinals, who are 18-9 since the All-Star break, captured their sixth successive series after taking the first three of the four-game set.

Daniel Murphy homered in the ninth for Washington, which has lost four in a row and seven of nine to fall below .500 and nine games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the NL East. The current skid began with a loss to the Cubs on a two-out, walk-off grand slam.

Ozuna homered in the second inning, his 14th of the season and his first since July 30.

Gomber (3-0), in his fourth start of the year, gave up three hits, struck out six and walked four.

Bud Norris pitched the ninth to pick up his 23rd save in 27 opportunities.

Harrison Bader and Yadier Molina added run-scoring hits for St. Louis, which improved to 19-9 since Mike Matheny was fired and replaced by interim manager Mike Shildt.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter extended his on-base streak to 33 games with a walk in the fifth. It's the longest current streak in the majors. Carpenter left the game in the seventh after he was hit on the hand by a pitch from Matt Grace, but X-rays were negative.

Jeremy Hellickson (5-3) left in the fifth inning after colliding with Bader on a play at the plate following a wild pitch. Hellickson gave up three runs, two earned, on three hits in 4 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.

Bader, who had three hits, also made a diving catch of a liner off the bat of Bryce Harper in the fourth.

The Cardinals, who have an NL-best 12-2 mark in August, remain one game behind Philadelphia for the second wild card spot. They are four games behind Chicago in the NL Central.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg threw a simulated game on Wednesday. He threw around 70 pitches and could be ready to return early next week, manager Dave Martinez said.

Cardinals: LHP Brett Cecil was activated from the 10-day disabled list on Wednesday. Cecil, who had been sidelined with inflammation in his right foot, pitched four scoreless innings in four appearances with Triple-A Memphis. LHP Tyler Webb was optioned to Memphis.

UP NEXT

RHP Tanner Roark (7-12, 4.12) will face RHP Luke Weaver (6-10, 4.66) in the finale of the four-game series on Thursday. Roark has won his last four decision, Weaver is 1-4 with a 5.13 ERA in nine career games against NL East foes.

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Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

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Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson exits game after collision

Washington Nationals right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was removed from Wednesday night's game in St. Louis in the fifth inning after colliding with Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader at the plate.

Hellickson was covering home after a wild pitch. He stumbled over Bader as Bader slid home safely.

Hellickson was charged with three runs, two earned, on three hits in his 4 1/3 innings. He struck out two and walked two.