Zimmerman's Homer Lifts Nationals Over Yankees

Having learned from his previous at-bat, Ryan Zimmerman knew what pitch to expect from Chien-Ming Wang in the bottom of the ninth when he hit this two-run home run to lift the Nationals.
Having learned from his previous at-bat, Ryan Zimmerman knew what pitch to expect from Chien-Ming Wang in the bottom of the ninth when he hit this two-run home run to lift the Nationals. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Sitting along the third base line more than 20 rows from the Washington Nationals' dugout at RFK Stadium, Keith Zimmerman watched New York Yankees left fielder Melky Cabrera run down a blast off the bat of Jose Vidro to end the eighth inning, maintaining a one-run lead for the New York Yankees. He turned to his wife, Cheryl, and the friends and family around them.

"Well," he recalled saying a couple hours later, "that just sets up Ryan for the walk-off."

Fathers are supposed to think positively, particularly on Father's Day. But the telling part about Keith Zimmerman's eldest son is that his teammates, his Hall of Fame manager, thought the same was possible. As soon as the Nationals put a man on in the ninth, as soon as 21-year-old Ryan Zimmerman began to walk to the plate, Manager Frank Robinson thought, "We got a shot."

Zimmerman capped what his father called a "crazy weekend" by drilling a fastball from Chien-Ming Wang over the left field fence, a two-run blast that provided not only a rousing 3-2 victory over the Yankees, but the first curtain call for a National since baseball returned to Washington last year. When ball met bat, with a father's intuition, Keith Zimmerman rose from his seat with the rest of the announced crowd of 45,157 -- the largest to see a single baseball game at the old stadium -- and cheered.

"I knew it was gone," Keith Zimmerman said by phone, "as soon as he hit it."

As did his son, who thrust his right arm in the air as he jogged toward first. Keith Zimmerman might have had a good feeling in the stands even an inning before, but the Nationals had never ended a game at RFK in such a fashion, and his son had never hit such a game-ending shot, be it in Little League, high school, at the University of Virginia. Anywhere.

"No walk-off, nothing," Ryan said afterward. "No single. Nothing."

Now, he has an indelible memory from this, his rookie season. His 10th homer ended a classic game between the storied Yankees -- who were responsible for packing the stadium with their rabid fans -- and the upstart Nationals, who are trying to establish what those in the Bronx take for granted, a passionate baseball following.

Yesterday would be a good place to start. It followed the Nationals' unlikely victory Saturday, one in which they trailed by seven runs but came back to beat New York and its star closer, Mariano Rivera. The momentum from that win, Robinson said, carried into yesterday, and the huge crowd got to enjoy a spectacular pitchers' duel between Wang, the Yankees right-hander, and Mike O'Connor, the rookie lefty for the Nationals.

After seven innings, with the score tied at 1, O'Connor came out, yielding to the Nationals' bullpen, which allowed the Yankees the go-ahead run in the eighth on a two-out double from Alex Rodriguez. When Rodriguez arrived at second after scorching a fastball thrown by Gary Majewski, he clapped once vigorously, called time, then clapped again, for he has been maligned for not coming through in the clutch, and here he had.

But even with the Yankees leading 2-1, the potential for collapse had been set up the previous two days. Rivera, he of the 392 career saves, pitched 1 2/3 innings in the Yankees comeback victory Friday, then appeared again in the eighth inning Saturday. Only once this year had Yankees Manager Joe Torre asked Rivera to pitch on three consecutive days. So the choice, with Wang having thrown only 80 pitches through seven, was to stick with the starter, who had allowed only four singles all day.

Wang, though, appeared shakier. He walked Brendan Harris and Alfonso Soriano in the eighth, bringing up Vidro with two outs. The sense in the Nationals' dugout was simple. "The guy was starting to leave pitches up," Vidro said.

Vidro drilled one of those pitches to left-center, and off the bat it looked like a double that would at least tie the score. But Cabrera ran it down, and the huge pockets of Yankees fans roared their approval.

Majewski went back out and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, keeping the Nationals in it. When they returned to the dugout for their last at-bat, "They didn't come in here like they were tired," Robinson said.

In fact, when Wang took the mound, they may have experienced a jolt of energy.

"It was great when we didn't see Rivera out there in the ninth," Vidro said. "It was like, 'Oh, man, we got a pretty good chance now.'"

Yet Torre had no appealing alternative. In the visiting bullpen, Rivera didn't stir.

"You're lacking the one guy you always go to," Torre said.

So Wang went to work, and so did the Nationals. In the dugout, Zimmerman was already thinking about his previous at-bat against Wang, one in which the right-hander jammed him with a sinker that he grounded harmlessly to second. It is a measure of his maturity, which the Nationals say can't be overstated, that a 21-year-old takes the time to learn from each time up.

"It's not an act," said veteran reliever Mike Stanton, who was in the majors before Zimmerman turned 5. "He's mature. He's a pretty quiet kid. He doesn't show anybody up. And he understands the game like a veteran. He has great instincts. He's the real deal."

With one out, pinch hitter Marlon Anderson pulled a single into right, and Zimmerman came to the plate with one thought in his head. "I hope he throws that same pitch," he said.

Wang did, his 107th of the day. But this time, it stayed up, and Zimmerman drilled it. The Nationals gathered at home, and before Zimmerman arrived, he tossed his helmet in the air before leaping gleefully into the throbbing mass of teammates that embraced him.

And in those stands along the third base line, Keith Zimmerman shared the moment with his family. And from the seats around him -- where members of the largest crowd in Nationals' history watched the face of the franchise's future beat the Yankees -- Keith Zimmerman heard the words over and over again.

"Happy Father's Day!" they yelled. "Happy Father's Day!"

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