Zimmerman Does It Again

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman wins the game in the last at-bat Thursday for the third time in less than three weeks. (Joel Richardson - The Post)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

No, Ryan Zimmerman does not win baseball games for the Washington Nationals every time he has the chance, and his teammates won't let the 21-year-old forget it.

"It's about time you got the game-winning hit," Nationals catcher Brian Schneider yelled at Zimmerman, face-to-face, amid slaps on the head and pats on the back. The Nationals mobbed Zimmerman for the second time in three days and the third time in three weeks, having just defeated the Florida Marlins, 8-7, in 11 innings for their fifth win in six games.

Zimmerman had come up to the plate twice with an opportunity to change the game, once in the sixth to tie, once in the bottom of the ninth to end it, but he had only struck out and popped meekly to first. When he came to the plate with Schneider on third with two outs in the bottom of the 11th, it was about time.

Zimmerman laced a 3-1 fastball from Jason Vargas into center field, inches from the glove of diving Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla. Schneider hustled home, the Nationals' bench exulted and the 29,053 at RFK Stadium rose to cheer a rookie fast becoming the franchise's first legend.

This time, there was no helmet flip as on Tuesday -- "I didn't really think about it," Zimmerman said -- and little outward emotion. Zimmerman made a big, jogging loop to first base, strode toward the center of the diamond and thrust a fist into the air, awaiting his onrushing teammates from the dugout.

"I think everyone was just relieved we won the game," Zimmerman said. "It was a long game, and it would have been a lot longer if we lost."

The single may have ended the 4-hour 4-minute affair, but it was the Nationals' bullpen that won it. After starter Livan Hernandez combusted in a seven-run second inning, newcomer Micah Bowie, Jon Rauch, Gary Majewski, Bill Bray and Chad Cordero combined for 9 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up three hits and striking out nine.

"They did an exceptional job," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Each guy gave me exactly what we needed. The bullpen was stretched to the maximum today. They won the game for us."

But only after Hernandez almost lost it. The Nationals handed Hernandez a five-run lead after the first inning, which he promptly squandered. The Marlins ripped balls all over the yard off Hernandez, drilling doubles to the gaps and outs to the warning track. They pounded six hits in the inning, the biggest being a two-run home run by Mike Jacobs that soared over the left field foul pole, off the facade of the upper deck.

Hernandez was leaving his pitches up, a dangerous proposition for a pitcher who throws a mid-80s fastball and relies on precise location. When Hernandez spots his pitches well, they are effectively crafty. When he doesn't, they're batting practice.

"I throw everything at the plate," Hernandez said, "and the guys hit it everywhere."

After Jacobs's missile, Hernandez walked off the field as Bowie jogged in from the bullpen. Bowie had landed in Washington about 11 hours earlier, at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, and he hadn't pitched in the big leagues for three years. Things looked bleak for a beleaguered bullpen, one that had given up 13 runs in eight innings the previous night.

But Bowie pitched well, mixing a fastball in the low 90s with effective breaking balls. He retired seven of the 10 men he faced, and the Nationals' other relievers agreed he set a needed tone.

While the Nationals' bullpen held down Florida, Washington still needed two runs. They came in the seventh, when Alex Escobar led off with a triple. Schneider lofted what appeared to be a lazy sacrifice to left, but Josh Willingham turned it into a two-base error. With two outs, Taylor Tankersley issued three consecutive walks, the final to -- who else? -- Zimmerman, allowing Schneider to come home with the tying run.

It stayed 7-7 until the 11th. Vargas entered and induced Schneider to ground to shortstop. Hanley Ramirez charged, but lost the ball in the infield dirt and was charged with an error. Robert Fick sacrificed Schneider to second, forcing Vargas to intentionally walk Alfonso Soriano to set up the possible double play. But Jose Vidro hit into a fielder's choice, setting the stage for Zimmerman.

Vargas started him with a change-up down and away followed by a fastball near the dirt, pitches Zimmerman would never swing at.

"I thought he was going to walk me," Zimmerman said.

So Zimmerman took on 2-0, and Vargas grooved a fastball down the plate's heart. Zimmerman realized Vargas may come after him yet. He took a change-up for ball three, and Vargas came back with the same fastball he threw at 2-0.

This time, Zimmerman wasn't taking. He finished off the Marlins once again, his third game-ending hit in three weeks.

Robinson said Zimmerman has an uncanny ability to feed off pressure where others crumble under it. "He stays within himself," the 70-year-old Hall of Famer said. Cordero credited experience beyond a typical 21-year-old. "He's not a rookie anymore," the closer said.

Zimmerman's explanation?

"I've been lucky to come up in those times," he said. "I've never been in these situations before. If you get too excited, you'll swing at a bad pitch. The other guy is probably just as nervous as you are, so if you wait for the pitcher to make a mistake, you'll probably get a hit."

He doesn't sound like a rookie, and, particularly when the game hangs in the balance, he doesn't play like one, either.

"That status," Zimmerman said, "goes away real quick."

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