By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
In Washington, it has been campaign season since sometime early in the summer, and the spinning will continue to ramp up over the final seven weeks before Election Day. But some 20 blocks east of the Capitol, the rhetoric and posturing has already reached its height, because Ryan Zimmerman's campaign to win the National League's rookie of the year award is down to its final 10 games, and the third baseman's handlers are trying to position their candidate in the best possible light as an otherwise trying season for the Washington Nationals winds down.
"You asked me a question, and I'll answer your question," Manager Frank Robinson said last night, faced with a query about whether Zimmerman has done enough to earn the honor. "As far as I'm concerned, yes, he has."
On a night when the Nationals were otherwise drubbed in a 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves, this is what amounted to a rousing debate at RFK Stadium, where an announced crowd of 19,027 -- the smallest since July 5 -- showed up to watch its last-place team in a game that generated little buzz. In it, though, Zimmerman gave the Nationals what little life they had, hitting his 19th homer of the year -- a swat that generated his 99th RBI -- and adding another single in his four at-bats.
So even after right-hander Ramon Ortiz allowed homers to Brian McCann and Andruw Jones in five innings -- taking his 15th loss, tying him for most in the NL -- Zimmerman had raised his average to .282, keeping him within range of the other likely offensive contender, Florida second baseman Dan Uggla, who's at .287 with 26 homers and 89 RBI. It was enough to make Robinson -- who sat his third-place hitter two nights earlier because he felt Zimmerman was badly wearing down -- to give a broad assessment of Zimmerman's case.
"It's not just the numbers," Robinson said. "This guy has meant more to this ballclub. You'd have to see him on a daily basis to really, really appreciate what he means and what he's meant to this ballclub this year, and the type of year he's had with the game-winning hits and the big RBI he's collected, and the defense he's played and the runs that he's saved, and the rallies he starts with a big double or whatever. You'd have to see him a lot to be able to appreciate him -- and not just look at the numbers across the board."
All season, Zimmerman has joined left fielder Alfonso Soriano as the only consistent reasons to stay focused on the Nationals. Soriano's major accomplishment -- becoming the fourth player to have 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same season -- was accomplished over the weekend, and he has struggled since, going 2 for 16 in his past four games.
So here was Zimmerman, laying into a 3-2 fastball from Atlanta's Lance Cormier and sending it off the back of the bullpen wall in left, his first homer in 16 games.
"I'm not a home run hitter," Zimmerman said, "so I don't try to hit homers."
Yet Zimmerman's offensive production has perhaps been the most surprising element of his first full season. Should he drive in one more run, he will become the fifth rookie since 1988 to have 100 RBI, joining Mike Piazza, Carlos Beltran, Albert Pujols and Hideki Matsui -- heady company.
"That would be huge," Zimmerman said. "Not many guys have done it."
It is especially appealing to Zimmerman because all he heard during spring training was that any offense he provided would be -- and he repeats the phrase to this day -- "a bonus." The run-producers in this lineup were supposed to be Jose Guillen (remember him?), Soriano and Nick Johnson. Yet Zimmerman leads them all in RBI. In fact, no rookie has more, and of the dozen NL players who entered last night with more RBI than Zimmerman, only David Wright of the New York Mets and Miguel Cabrera of the Florida Marlins -- both 23 years old -- were within two years of Zimmerman, who will turn 22 on Sept. 28.
"Going into the year, they were trying to keep me so low-key and not really set goals offensively," Zimmerman said. "They said, 'Just go out and do what you can, and whatever you do is a bonus.'
"So I just kind of came in relaxed and when I got a chance to drive runs in, I tried to hit according to the situation. To get 100, when there's a runner on third and less than two outs, you got to take a ground ball to second base to get the guy in. That's why 100 RBI is special, because it helps the team out."
It didn't help the team last night. Ortiz nearly no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 4. His performance since: 0-3 with an 8.27 ERA. "It's unbelievable," he said.
So in the search for an upbeat element upon which to build their platform, the Nationals will talk about Zimmerman.
"I think Ryan Zimmerman deserves to win, and I love the Marlins," General Manager Bowden said. "Uggla's had a great year. [Florida right-hander Josh] Johnson's had a great year, and I respect what they've done. But what Ryan Zimmerman does defensively -- which doesn't get mentioned. . . . Defensively, I think he deserves to win the Gold Glove award and the rookie of the year."
When the Nationals went down in the ninth last night, Zimmerman remained in the dugout, not getting a chance to add to his totals. The crowd had largely filtered out. If the campaign is to continue, it will likely do so on nights like these, without the circus-like atmosphere surrounding a pennant race, but with a few passionate observers pushing their candidate to what they hope will be a victory.