WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before watching his team lose to the Cubs, 5-4, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman had a meeting with his players on the pitcher's mound at Nationals Park.
Even though the team was 19 games under .500 entering Tuesday's action against the Cubs, Riggleman told his players to play hard and stay motivated. The meeting came a day after Washington was pounded, and Riggleman scolded his players for not being motivated on the field.
"That's over and let's go play baseball. It's part of the process," Riggleman told his players. "We talked about a couple of fundamentals today -- a few things here and there. Let's stay motivated."
The Nationals didn't look motivated until the bottom of the ninth inning, when they made it an interesting ballgame.
Down by four, Washington had the bases loaded with two outs when Cubs closer Carlos Marmol allowed a bases-clearing double to Adam Kennedy to make it a one-run game.
Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate representing the game-winning run and worked the count to 2-2. Throughout the at-bat, Marmol threw nothing but sliders to Zimmerman. But on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Marmol threw a fastball to Zimmerman, who hit the ball to deep right field. The ball was sailing over the head of right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, but he made a running catch for the final out of the game.
"I thought it had a shot to get over Fukudome's head. It was a good at-bat against a tough pitcher," Zimmerman said. "He is not an easy guy to get hits off of. He strikes out everyone pretty much. It was a good job to battle back and have a chance to win."
Before making an attempt at a comeback, the long ball proved to be Washington starter John Lannan's undoing. He had his worst outing since leaving Double-A Harrisburg early this month. He lasted five innings and allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits.
Lannan found himself in trouble in the second inning. After allowing consecutive singles to Jeff Baker and Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano hit a three-run homer over the left-field wall to give Chicago a 3-0 lead.
Two innings later, after Soriano reached base on an error by shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, Tyler Colvin took the first pitch and hit the ball over the right-center-field wall to give the Cubs a five-run lead.
"It was the slider that got me beat twice," Lannan said. "After the Colvin at-bat, I settled down. I felt pretty good in the at-bats after that. So, it's something to build off of."
Since returning to the big leagues, Lannan has pitched at least five innings. Now he wants to go to the next level.
"I would like to go deeper in the ballgames," Lannan said. "Sometimes, it's out of my control and there is nothing I can do about it. The bullpen is doing a great job. I'm trying to keep the team in the game as long as I'm allowed to throw. That's my goal."
Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano dominated the Nationals. He pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing one run on five hits, striking out eight batters and walking just one.
"He threw a lot of strikes. He pounded the zone, worked quickly," Zimmerman said. "He has a heavy ball. He was making pitches. He was mixing it up and getting strike one. He was going right at us."
Zambrano had a lot on his mind during the game. He learned that his 11-year-old nephew was in intensive care in a Venezuelan hospital. After the game, Zambrano went home to be with his brother's son.
"It is pretty sad. He's in bad condition, in bad shape," Zambrano said. "I talked to my bro. He told me don't worry about what happened, just worry about what's going on here ... and dedicate that game to his son. In the first inning, I was thinking about him and I was throwing all the pitches, saying this is for my nephew.
"He is only 11 years old, every pitch that I threw in the first inning, I was saying, 'This is for you,' and I was saying in my mind, 'Don't give up, don't give up, just pitch this game for him.'"
Washington has lost four of its past five games to drop its record to 53-73. However, the Nationals showed that they can stay motivated.