Learning Curve Skips Ahead

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman hits his second game-winning homer in less than three weeks. (Preston Keres - The Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

At some point after the ball left the bat, as Ryan Zimmerman headed toward first base and a sparse Independence Day crowd rose to its feet at RFK Stadium, a 21-year-old rookie turned into a veteran. He still might run into a wall of fatigue sometime during a long, steamy summer. His manager still will insist he has no expectations for him, that he will put no pressure on him.

Yet as Zimmerman strode home yesterday -- his game-ending, three-run homer having sent the Washington Nationals to an unlikely 6-4 victory over the Florida Marlins that, by all rights, should have been a loss -- there was a sense that not only has this happened before, but that it will happen again. Doubt it? Listen to his manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who has played in and managed 4,973 major league games.

"He's a very special individual," Robinson said. "They don't come around too often. . . . He's still learning, that's what's scary about it. He's going to be good one of these days, and not too far away. And I mean good."

Robinson doesn't often sing such high praises, particularly for someone who was drafted just 13 months ago. Zimmerman, though, has a flair not only for creating drama -- his latest performance lifted the Nationals to their fourth win in a row -- but for eliciting the respect of veterans, older men who are now his peers.

It was only 16 days earlier that Zimmerman sent the New York Yankees moping off RFK Stadium's field with a two-run blast that turned a loss into a win. Yesterday, here he came again, approaching his teammates gathered around the plate. He has this down now, and his routine was the same. He tossed his helmet to the sky before he reached the plate, then leapt into the throng of awaiting arms, like a rock star doing some crowd surfing.

"I wasn't expecting to end the game like that," he said diplomatically. But the reality is, in the small home clubhouse, the Nationals expect such things from Zimmerman. Not every at-bat, not every day. But three months into his first full major league season, he is hitting third in a lineup that features plenty of veterans, and no one blinks.

"He's been our MVP out there," said second baseman Jose Vidro, making a bold statement considering the explosiveness of left fielder Alfonso Soriano. "Soriano's doing his things, and everybody knows that. But behind him is Zimmerman, who's been doing a great job all the way around, defense and clutch hits and picking a lot of guys up."

It was Vidro who Zimmerman picked up yesterday. If not for the game-ending shot off Marlins reliever Joe Borowski, this game would have been remembered for missed opportunities and odd defensive plays, more than enough from Vidro, who went 0 for 5 and committed two errors -- as many as he had committed all season.

The second error was the most costly. In a tie game, the Marlins had runners on first and third with one out in the eighth. Marlins center fielder Reggie Abercrombie hit a grounder to Zimmerman at third, and he threw to Vidro to get the force at second. But when Vidro tried to turn the double play, his throw short-hopped first baseman Nick Johnson and trickled near the coach's box.

That's when things got truly ugly. Miguel Cabrera scooted around from second and beat Johnson's desperate flip to catcher Brian Schneider. When the dust settled, Cabrera popped up and pumped his fist, and the Marlins had a 4-3 lead.

"It wasn't an easy play at all," Vidro said.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals would have tied the game had Johnson's line drive to the gap not skipped over the fence for an automatic double, holding Zimmerman at third. Washington ended up with the bases loaded and one out. But Borowski came on to get Royce Clayton to pop out and Marlon Byrd on a soft comebacker, and a feeling of gloom settled over the announced crowd of 23,118.

"You can't sit here and feel good about the overall game that we played," Robinson said. "You can't do those things and expect to win ballgames."

Yet the Nationals won anyway. Pinch hitter Robert Fick started the winning rally with a one-out single to left. Borowski then got Soriano to pop a ball up behind second base. But it dropped between center fielder Abercrombie and Dan Uggla, the second baseman, putting runners on first and second. After Vidro flew out, and with the Nationals down to their final man, Zimmerman stepped to the plate.

He said, by now, he is comfortable in the Nationals' clubhouse, in the majors, in almost any situation. Robinson, naturally, didn't say anything to him before the at-bat, nor does he say much to him, period. Robinson's idea: Let him play.

"Because I'm learning," Zimmerman explained. "If he talked to me every time I did something wrong, he'd be talking to me all the time. That makes you doubt yourself even more."

Minimize the conversation, and the doubt. Borowski fell behind 2-1, but then threw a curveball on the inside part of the plate for strike two. "I should've hit that one," Zimmerman said.

It just set up the next pitch, another breaking ball. Zimmerman was ready.

When the ball sailed over the fence, the mob formed at home plate, awaiting the young hero again. And after his smiling teammates poured into the dugout and then to the clubhouse, Zimmerman did what a veteran would do. He emerged from the dugout, walked on to the edge of the field and waved with both hands. It has happened before. And all indications are, it will happen again.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company