WASHINGTON -- This season's annual Battle of the Beltway between the Nationals and Orioles has been a resounding success as far as attendance and exposure for the two clubs.
The Nationals drew 42,331 for Saturday's 6-5 loss to the Orioles -- the second-largest crowd in the history of four-year-old Nationals Park. This series is the first the teams have played when each had winning records, and the players could feel the energy from a crowd that has been evenly split for the two clubs.
"This whole thing, with both of us playing well, and both of us having a young group of guys on the team that this fan base can cheer for -- not only this year but years to come -- I think is great," said Ryan Zimmerman, who went 3-for-5 on Saturday night with a homer. "It's great for both cities. It's great for baseball. It's great for this area. It's only going to get better as the years go on."
The Nationals were expecting another big crowd for Sunday's final game with ace Stephen Strasburg on the hill. The Orioles won the opening two games of the series.
The teams will meet again in Baltimore on June 22-24. The Orioles lead the series, 21-17, since the teams started playing in 2006.
After this set, the Nationals embark on a nine-game road trip against divisional rivals.
"Any time you lose the first two and salvage a game, it's kind of a momentum swing," Zimmerman said. "Hopefully, Stevie will pitch well and we get him some support early."
Johnson seeing improvement in Nats bats
WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been encouraged by the way his team has been swinging the bats lately, and he is hopeful the club will start packing more punch going forward.
After averaging just 3.4 runs per game in mid-April. the Nationals are now averaging four runs per game in May. Washington fell behind, 6-0, on Saturday night against the Orioles, but chipped away before losing by a run .
Ryan Zimmerman went 3-for-5 with a home run in the ninth to give his team some hope. Steve Lombardozzi batted leadoff for the first time this season, and responded with two hits and an RBI.
"Zim had a great game, and that helps. It looks like he's heating up," Johnson said. "[Lombardozzi] had a good game. We started hitting the ball hard, but [Orioles starter Jason] Hammel had some good stuff. He was a tough cookie."
The Nationals have also hit 22 homers in their past 15 contests. So far this month, Washington is second in the National League with 64 extra-base hits, and third with a .447 slugging percentage.
"We just don't have everything cranking like you want," Johnson said. "But I have seen signs of improvement. In the last two or three weeks, guys are starting to feel good up there. To win in this league, you can't have any weak spots in the lineup. Everybody has got to be protected. That's the name of the game."
Nationals' bullpen continues to be strong
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals' bullpen had another solid performance in Saturday's 6-5 loss, holding the Orioles scoreless over the final four innings while the offense chipped away at a six-run deficit.
The combination of Craig Stammen, Ryan Perry and Henry Rodriguez allowed just one hit with no walks. Overall, the club's pitching has been dominant, ranking first in the Major League in ERA (2.98) and strikeouts (349).
"I kind of figured I was going to get two out of Stammen and one out of Perry," manager Davey Johnson said. "We had a chance. When you're down 6-0 and have a chance to win in the eighth, ninth inning, that's the sign of a good ball team."
Tyler Clippard is also second in the National League with nine holds. Rodriguez is fifth in the NL with nine saves.
Espinosa returns to leadoff spot for finale
WASHINGTON -- Danny Espinosa was back in the leadoff spot for Sunday's series finale against Baltimore after getting most of the previous night off as he deals with an ongoing slump.
Manager Davey Johnson said Espinosa has been showing signs of frustration at the plate, but he is confident the second baseman will get back on track. Espinosa is batting just .207 with three homers and seven RBIs.
In the seventh inning of Friday's 2-1 loss to the Orioles, Bryce Harper singled, and Espinosa was asked to bunt him into scoring position. However, he struck out when his bunt attempt went foul with two strikes, stalling any type of rally.
"I just felt like he's struggling a little bit," Johnson said Sunday. "He had two strikes [Friday night] and he bunted on his own. I just sense a little frustration there. He's a heck of a talent."
Espinosa entered as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of Saturday's 6-5 loss to the Orioles and lined out to left field.
Todd Karpovich is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.