The Washington Nationals are officially the hottest team in baseball.
Behind another strong outing from emerging top-of-the-rotation starter Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats found just enough offense today to defeat their neighbors 45 miles to the north, the Baltimore Orioles, for the second straight game, extending their season-high winning streak to eight games, and pull within one game of the elusive .500 mark at 35-36.
This is the longest winning streak for the Nationals since August 2009 and has them residing alone in third place in the N.L. East, just five games out of the wild card spot depending on the results of later games.
Zimmermann, 25, gave up a solo home run to the Orioles emerging star center fielder Adam Jones in the top of the first, but would not be scored upon again until the seventh, when he finally ran out of gas on the hot, humid day in the Nation's Capital. Zimmermann suffered from the same microscopic strike zone that all the pitchers did today from home plate umpire David Rackey, a Triple-A umpire called up to cover for Major League umpire vacations.
The final line for Zimmermann reads as many have since the first of May: 6 1/3 innings, two earned runs on eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts. The win raises his personal record to 5-6, and lowers his ERA to 3.08 for the season. Zimmermann has given up more than two earned runs in a start just once since May 1, and on that occasion he gave up three.
The offense came from the Nats No. 3 and 4 hitters: Ryan Zimmermann and Michael Morse. Zim hit his first homer since returning from the disabled list, his second of the season, in the bottom of the first, while Morse hit a two-run shot -- his team leading 13th of the year -- in the sixth. Ivan Rodriguez drove in the Nats fourth run with a double later in the inning after Morse's homer.
Both homers came off Baltimore starter Brian Matusz (L, 1-2), who went 5 1/3 innings and gave up four earned runs on six hits and three walks with five strikeouts. Matusz left the game in the sixth with an apparent injury. He's only recently returned from the D.L. with a strained ribcage muscle.
Henry Rodriguez pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief of Zimmermann to earn his second hold and Drew Storen threw a perfect ninth for his 17th save of the campaign.
In this eight-game streak, the Nats are finding different ways to win. They've gotten dominant pitching performances, offensive fireworks, and terrific defensive plays. Today, they got a good -- but not dominant -- start from Zimmermann and found just enough pop to hold off the pesky Orioles. They've crept within one game of .500 and should the Nats win tomorrow, it will mark the latest in the season this organization has had an even record since ending the 2005 season at 81-81.
You gotta start someplace.
THE GOOD: Ryan Zimmerman. It's good to see him crush a ball. He went 2-for-4 with two runs today, and has driven in a run in four of the five games he's played since his return. Michael Morse. He just continues to prove all the doubters wrong for now. Another two hits, homer and two RBIs, and his average is up to .310.
THE BAD: The two guys at the top of the lineup, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, combined to go 0-for-7 with a walk and two strikeouts.
THE UGLY: Matusz' exit. He was pitching fine, but all of the sudden 1B Derrik Lee stopped play and called for the Baltimore trainers. They immediately pulled Matusz and he left the game, barely able to walk down the dugout steps under his own power. The O's announced he suffered from left hamstring cramps, but considering he's only been off the D.L. for three starts, it has to put a shiver down the backs of all in Birdland.
THE STATS: Eight hits, three walks, six strikeouts. 1-for-6 with RISP, five LOB, one GIDP. No errors.
NEXT GAME: Sunday at 1:35 against the Orioles at Nats Park. Tom Gorzelanny (2-4, 4.25) comes off the D.L. to face Chris Jakubauskas (1-0, 5.09).