Nationals Get One to Grow On

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005

MIAMI, Sept. 28 -- When the deluge began just before 9:10 p.m. Wednesday night, the instinct was hard to deny. Stop the game. Don't play anymore. The Washington Nationals' season, once so full of life and hope, is petering to a slow end in South Florida, and what point would there be to trotting back out there and playing four more innings?

That, though, would be missing the point, because if the District has become accustomed the emotions and heart-wringing that go along with a summer's worth of baseball, it must also become accustomed to one of the sport's most familiar refrains: Wait till next year. And in Wednesday night's 11-7 victory over the stumbling Florida Marlins, there were some reasons to think about next year, both about what might be here -- and what might not.

Outfielder Preston Wilson, a free agent at season's end, went 3 for 5 with his 25th homer and five RBI. First baseman Nick Johnson added his 15th homer to go along with two doubles and four RBI, a reminder of what he can do when he's healthy. And rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman kept showing that he is, unless something goes terribly wrong, an anchor for the future, lacing two more hits.

It all made for a three-game sweep of the Marlins, not to mention a scoring outburst like the Nationals haven't seen this season. They pushed across 26 runs, their highest-scoring three-game series of the season. Never had they scored more runs in back-to-back games than they did on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, when they scored 22. It is late in the season, and they are out of it. But Manager Frank Robinson said the team acted like the games still mattered.

"I knew something about this ballclub long before this three-game series," Robinson said. "It has a lot of heart. They were on a mission. It's probably the first time in the year we're thinking about sweeping a series before the series started."

So they did, and with three games remaining, the Nationals ensured that they will finish no worse than .500 by winning No. 81. Take one of three against the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium over the weekend and they will have a winning record. Perhaps even more intriguing: They broke a tie with the Marlins, and leapfrogged the New York Mets, and now sit in third place in the National League East.

They got into that position not for the reason they won most of the previous 80, with solid pitching. Yes, Esteban Loaiza finally got a win because of run support. But his six innings of six-run ball represented one of his worst efforts, and he closed his season with a 12-10 record and a 3.77 ERA, up from 3.63 at the beginning of the night. He will be a free agent at year's end, but reiterated a desire to return.

"I'd love to be back," Loaiza said.

Rather, they won because the bats broke out for the second straight night. Johnson's four RBI brought his total to 73 on the year. Even though he missed a month with a bruised heel, he could overtake Jose Guillen (who has 76) for the most runs driven in by a National this season. Wilson's five RBI gave him 89 on the year, but 47 of those came with the Colorado Rockies.

Yet the most intriguing part of this offense is the birthday boy, Zimmerman. His numbers from Wednesday -- 2 for 4 with a double, a run scored and a walk -- don't pop off the page. But consider that he celebrated his 21st birthday after the game as the Nationals prepared to fly back to Washington. General Manager Jim Bowden has consistently raved about Zimmerman. Defensively, Bowden said, he could compare to Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt, the greats of the game.

All of that is a bit hasty, especially for a 21-year-old. But what Zimmerman has done since he was recalled from Class AA Harrisburg has impressed even hardened old-timers.

"I like what I see," Robinson said.

Zimmerman is now hitting .417 and slugging .604, with nine doubles in 48 at-bats. In the 10 games in which he has more than one at-bat, he has gone hitless just once, and has shown the ability to drive the ball to all fields, making his living in the left-center field gap. And, just a month into his career, he is even showing an ability to adjust to the pitcher's strategy.

"I've seen clubs picking at him and trying different things with him, and he's still being a little successful," Robinson said. "You don't get carried away in spring training and in September. You really don't. But he has faced some stiff competition and has played against teams that were in the fight for the wild card, and he's handled that pretty good. I just like what you see overall with him."

And, even in the ninth inning, with a tiny crowd of 11,961 long since scared away by a 14-minute rain delay and some dreadful baseball, Robinson had to like what he saw from his club. Marlins lefty Ron Villone entered and threw high and tight to Brad Wilkerson. The Nationals' players, who had watched Villone throw the same pitch to Nick Johnson the night before, started jawing at Villone from the dugout, something that continued till the end of the inning, when Villone left the mound, staring back at the Nationals.

"He buzzed my tower," Wilkerson said, "and guys in the dugout got upset."

In the ninth inning, with nothing on the line, and just three games left, the Nationals were still growling.

"We're not done," Robinson said. "We've got three games to play, and we got three games to win."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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