by Tyler Radecki, Staff Writer

Jordan Zimmermann has been a model of consistency for the Nationals this year, giving the team a solid start seemingly every time he takes the mound. Tuesday night he finally faltered, giving up six runs on seven hits in five innings as the Nats fell to the Astros, 7-6.

The loss drops the Nats to 48-49 and they slid a half-game behind the New York Mets for third in the N.L. East and just one game ahead of the last place Florida Marlins.

The 25-year-old starter looked good early on, striking out two batters in the first. But in the second, a line drive from Carlos Lee struck Zimmermann on the ankle. He gave up a two-run homer two batters later but rebounded and looked good until the fourth, when the Astros knocked him around for four more runs.

Zimmermann left the game after the fifth, leaving with the most earned runs against (6) and fewest innings (5) in a start this season.

The offense, though, tried to pick up their starter. Michael Morse knocked another breaking ball over the left field wall in the third inning to tie the game at two, and three innings later the offense added three more runs, two of which were from a home run from Jerry Hairston, Jr., who made his return from the DL by going 3-for-4.

Even though they had scored five runs to this point, the offense had left the bases loaded in the first and had runners on base in every inning. They went just 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base.

Down 6-5, Todd Coffey relieved Zimmermann to start the sixth and got two outs before giving up a single, walk and a single to give the Astros a two-run lead. In the seventh, Morse added his second double of the game to lead off the inning and a line-drive single by Jayson Werth put runners at first and third with no outs.

Wilson Ramos hit a hard ground ball up the middle, but it deflected off pitcher David Carpenter and ricocheted to second baseman Angel Sanchez, who scooped it and started a double play. Morse scored on the play, but the momentum for a rally had ended.

The Nats threatened again the ninth when, with two outs, Morse was hit by a pitch and Werth walked. Wilson Ramos, though, struck out to end the game and even the series at one game apiece.

THE GOOD: Ian Desmond batting second and Michael Morse continuing to rake. Davey Johnson tried to spark Desmond’s bat by moving him up to the second spot in the order, and the shortstop came up with a big 2-for-5 day with an RBI. Morse, a day after picking up three hits and a home run, had three hits again – a home run and two doubles. He’s been retired twice this series, and one was a lineout.

THE BAD: Danny Espinosa’s return to the leadoff spot was not a success, as the second baseman went 0-for-5 with a strikeout and 3 LOB. Johnson decided to move Bernadina from the spot, but I’m not sure Espinosa is the leadoff answer the team is looking for.

THE UGLY: Jordan Zimmermann was not sharp after taking a line drive off the ankle, and his fourth inning was one to forget as he gave up four runs on five hits. The big inning was the deciding factor as the Nats could not completely overcome the deficit.

THE STATS:  11 hits, five walks, six strikeouts.  2-for-10 with RISP, nine LOB, one GIDP.  E: Zimmerman (7)

NEXT GAME:  Wednesday at Houston at 2:05 pm EDT.  Livan Hernandez (5-9, 4.09) faces Brett Myers (3-10, 4.86).

NATS NOTES: Before the game, the Nats activated RHP Chad Gaudin from his rehab assignment and then designated him for assignment.  The club has ten days to allow him to trade him.  If Gaudin clears waivers, he could be asked to accept a minor league assignment.

Chien-Ming Wang started for Triple-A Syracuse, the highest level of minor leagues hitters he's faced in his five rehab starts.  He went 5 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on seven hits and one walk, striking out four in the Chiefs' 12-inning 4-3 walk-off win over Buffalo.  Wang threw 91 pitches, 62 for strikes and coaxed nine ground outs two fly ball outs.