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Nationals Outlast Marlins in the Rain

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007; 2:30 AM

When Ryan Zimmerman came to bat with two outs in the ninth inning early Sunday morning, about a dozen spectators remained at RFK Stadium and the maintenance crew had already begun cleaning the upper deck.

The Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins began their game more than 6 1/2 hours earlier, and after two rain delays, 11 pitchers, a record-tying number of doubles by the visitors and an inside-the-park home run by Austin Kearns, Zimmerman stood at the plate with a chance to end one of the strangest games since the Nationals arrived in the capital city more than two years ago.

The second-year third baseman smashed Jorge Julio's fastball over the left-center field wall, providing Washington with an extraordinary 7-3 victory.

"Just because of the game, so many rain delays, so many big pitches, big plays, big hits, and then to finish it off kind of shows what this team is about," said Zimmerman, who had hit only one home run coming into the game. "We stayed positive the whole time and it was a long night."

The game was delayed for 2 hours 51 minutes in the fifth inning with the score tied 1-1. The Marlins were ahead 3-2 in the ninth when the game was stopped again, this time for 47 minutes. When play resumed, Brian Schneider drew a walk and, with one out, pinch hitter Dmitri Young singled pinch runner Nook Logan to third. Following a walk, Felipe Lopez singled to right to tie the game. Cristian Guzman struck out, but at 1:42 a.m., Zimmerman smacked a 1-0 pitch for his second grand slam in the past month against Florida.

"At the end," Manager Manny Acta said, "it was worthwhile."

In a setting eerily reminiscent of last September's Nationals-Phillies encounter that did not end until after 2 a.m., Dan Uggla and Aaron Boone followed the first stoppage with run-scoring hits in the fifth inning for the Marlins. Kearns's inside-the-park home run cut the deficit to 3-2, setting up the drawn-out ending.

Uggla had a career-high three doubles and the Marlins equaled the club record with eight. The victory secured the Nationals' first series triumph of the season. The teams will go at it again at 1:35 p.m. Sunday.

"This is what we needed -- we needed Zimmerman to step up for us and carry us because he's our main guy here," Acta said.

When the game began so many hours and downpours earlier, Nationals starter Matt Chico took the mound before a crowd of 19,278 with a 6.03 ERA. The Marlins were to blame for much of it after smacking around the young left-hander for 14 hits and 11 earned runs during a combined 8 2/3 innings in April.

Chico had performed well in his previous start, at Milwaukee on Monday, allowing three runs -- all on Geoff Jenkins's home run -- in seven innings during a 3-0 defeat to the Brewers. But the Marlins did not waste any time last night picking on one of their favorite opposing pitchers as Hanley Ramirez sent the second offering of the game off the right-center field wall for a double.

Three batters later, though, Ramirez was caught attempting to steal when Schneider's ankle-high throw met the Marlin sliding into the base.

Chico allowed two-out hits in each of the following two innings, including Uggla's double in the third, but did not get himself into serious trouble. He then played a prominent role in the Nationals' modest rally in their half of the third.

After Ryan Langerhans singled, Chico placed a bunt a foot in front of the plate. Catcher Miguel Olivo tried to get the force at second, but his throw was both late and wild. Felipe Lopez's bunt moved over both runners, Guzman walked and Zimmerman flied deep enough to center to score Langerhans and allow the others to advance. Ryan Church walked to reload the bases, but Kearns lined to center to end the threat.

Florida drew even in the fourth. Josh Willingham led off with a double to center and scored on Olivo's one-out single to right. On the scoring play, however, John Gall, who had walked, got caught scrambling back to second after the throw to the plate to all but extinguish the Marlins' potentially big inning.

The game reached the top of the fifth when the sky turned black, lightning flashed and the rain began to fall. About 1 hour 45 minutes later, the grounds crew started to remove the tarp when the rain started again. Another hour passed, the crew went back to work on the mud and the puddles, and the fans who had taken cover on the concourse reemerged. A handful of diehards returned to their seats in the upper deck, specks in a sea of maroon and yellow emptiness.

While the field was being prepped, several Nationals stood on the top step of the dugout to sign autographs. Fans yelled out to Acta, who bowed in admiration of their persistence to see a little more baseball.

When play finally resumed, Chico had been replaced by Levale Speigner, whose first pitch, at 11:16 p.m., was dumped into short right field by Ramirez for a double. Uggla followed by lining a double to left-center, breaking the tie. A walk and a single loaded the bases for Boone, who delivered a single to center for a 3-1 lead.

Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco also departed, making way for Matt Lindstrom, who did not have the immediate difficulties that Speigner endured. An inning later, however, Kearns smashed a shot to center that a leaping Reggie Abercrombie knocked down at the wall but couldn't control. Kearns raced around the bases and scored easily for an inside-the-park homer -- his first and the team's first since moving from Montreal in 2005.

"I'd much rather jog around the bases," Kearns joked. "Speed kills."

The rain returned, but not with the intensity as earlier. Nationals reliever Winston Abreu escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh to keep it close, and just when it seemed the game would be completed without another disturbance, the hard stuff began to fall in the ninth, forcing the few fans and players alike to seek shelter once again.

"That's the closest I've seen to hail, the rain drops were so big," Kearns said.

Said Schneider: "It was a pretty unique game. The fans stuck around and they got a show."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company