CHICAGO — The Washington Nationals were rallying again and Ian Desmond figured this one would go their way, too.
Instead, they came up short.
Jeff Samardzija dominated into the ninth, outpitching Jordan Zimmermann, and the Chicago Cubs beat the Nationals 4-3 Sunday for their first win of the Theo Epstein era.
"We were all in the dugout on the edge, waiting for the next guy to get up," Desmond said. "We fell a little short, but we won the series, and now on to New York (to play the Mets)."
The Nationals were shut down by Samardzija (1-0) right until the end, and then things got real interesting. After rallying against Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol to win the first two games, Washington came up short in the ninth and couldn't quite complete the three-game sweep.
Ryan Zimmerman reached when Starlin Castro bounced the throw to first after fielding a two-out grounder to shortstop. Samardzija stayed in after a visit from manager Dale Sveum — who was booed when he came out and cheered when he went back to the dugout — and Adam LaRoche drilled his second two-run homer in as many games, sending a drive to the seats in right that cut it to 4-3.
Marmol came in and walked Jayson Werth before Xavier Nady fouled out to Castro near the third base dugout to end the game for his first save.
Samardzija was simply spectacular in his sixth career start, allowing four hits and an earned run. He struck out eight without a walk as the Cubs shook off two wrenching losses to start the season.
"(Samardzija's) developed pitches over the last couple years with that cutter, and now, he's got that split," said Steve Clevenger, who caught Samardzija in the minors. "He can throw it any time and any count. It makes him tough on hitters."
The Nationals certainly were impressed.
"He had three good pitches and he was out there grinding," Ian Desmond said. "He was anywhere from 98 (mph) to 90 with his fastball and had his split, the occasional cut . he was out there, he was pumping strikes."
Alfonso Soriano drove in two runs, with a sacrifice fly in the fourth and run-scoring single off Zimmermann (0-1) in the sixth to give Chicago a 2-1 lead after Washington tied it in the top half.
Castro had two hits, scored twice and stole two bases. He doubled in a run off Ryan Mattheus and scored on Ian Stewart's single in a two-run eighth, sending Chicago to its first win under the new regime.
The Cubs brought in Epstein as president of baseball operations hoping he can help them capture their first championship since 1908 after he put together two title-winning teams in Boston, ending an 86-year drought. Chicago also hired his former Red Sox colleague Jed Hoyer as general manager and Sveum as manager to replace the fired Mike Quade.
They didn't get much off Zimmermann, who held them to two runs — one earned — and six hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth. With the Cubs being aggressive or impatient, he threw just 80 pitches and did not walk a batter, but the Nationals came up short after pulling out two dramatic wins.
"I was able to locate the fastball pretty well, and the curveball and slider were both there today," Zimmermann said. "I felt good and felt comfortable throwing anything, anytime in the count."
NOTES: Sveum got a few reminders about his memorable Easter Sunday homer 25 years ago for the Brewers against Kansas City — a game-ending shot that capped a 6-4 comeback win and put Milwaukee at 12-0. The Brewers went on to tie a major league record by winning their first 13 games. "I actually forgot all about it until I got a few texts from the clubbies out in Milwaukee," Sveum said. He spent the previous six seasons on Milwaukee's coaching staff and will see his former team when the Brewers open a four-game series at Wrigley Field on Monday. ... Shaun Marcum starts Monday for Milwaukee against the Cubs' Chris Volstad, who came to Chicago from Miami in the Carlos Zambrano deal. ... The Nationals open a three-game series at the Mets on Monday, with Edwin Jackson making his Washington debut and Mike Pelfrey starting for New York.