By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007
When the Washington Nationals filtered out of RFK Stadium for the first time yesterday -- under the cover of darkness sometime after 2 a.m. -- they did so with the knowledge that the primary component of their future, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, had provided an electrifying moment that nearly no one saw. Zimmerman's game-ending grand slam beat the Florida Marlins after a pair of rain delays that thinned the crowd to several dozen by the time the ball sailed out at 1:42 a.m.
That Zimmerman would contribute with such flair and impact has become expected in his short time in the District. But the way the Nationals finished off their sweep of the Marlins yesterday afternoon -- a 6-4 victory that gave them three straight wins for the first time this season -- just might say more about where the club is and where it intends to go.
The two key contributors: right-hander Jason Simontacchi, who might be out of baseball had the Nationals not been offering spring tryouts to every cheap and available arm; and catcher Jesus Flores, who certainly would be in the minors had the Nationals not been willing to rush someone who hadn't played above Class A.
Players such as Simontacchi, a 33-year-old who won his first major league game since 2003, are what is holding this club together now, and his 5 1/3 innings of effective, efficient pitching let the Nationals build a 5-0 lead. Players like Flores, a 22-year-old from Venezuela who a month ago didn't have a major league hit, are what might eventually bring success in the future, and his 2-for-3 performance included a pair of run-scoring singles and a flawless job receiving Simontacchi.
"We know what we're doing here," veteran first baseman Robert Fick said. "We're building a team."
And on days such as a sunny Mother's Day Sunday -- one that began with those overnight downpours -- some building blocks become visible. Zimmerman's breakout performance in the 7-3 victory that began Saturday night was his fourth game-ending hit in less than a year, his third against the Marlins, his third by a home run, and his second grand slam of the season. Even with the crowd long gone, the 22-year-old acted like a little kid, starting the season's longest day -- "a doubleheader," Zimmerman called it -- by tossing off his helmet, then leaping into the pile of teammates at the plate.
"The best part is when you come around third," Zimmerman said, "and you see everyone there waiting for you."
After 2:30 a.m., Zimmerman called his parents, who were in town for Mother's Day, and woke them in their hotel room. They hadn't heard what happened. By 3:30 a.m., he was finally in bed. And between 10 and 11 a.m., the Nationals started reassembling in the clubhouse, their first series victory ensured, the sweep to come.
"It was huge for us last night," Fick said. "Nobody wanted to be here, but we took the attitude of, 'We're here. We're going to win it.' So today, everybody came in fired up."
It's likely no one was more fired up than Simontacchi. Late in 2004, he underwent surgery to repair the labrum in his right shoulder. He sat out all of 2005, during which time he fell down stairs at his house, stunting his rehabilitation. He went to spring training with the Cubs in 2006, but his shoulder didn't respond and he was cut. He thought he might be done.
"I just kept questioning when it was going to happen," he said.
As it turned out, what he needed was a trip to independent ball in Bridgeport, Conn., then winter ball in the Dominican Republic, then a chance with the Nationals. Because of a groin injury in spring training, yesterday was only his second major league start. On paper, it didn't look like much -- those 5 1/3 innings in which he gave up four runs, three of them earned.
But the Marlins' four-run sixth inning was sparked by a fly ball lost in the sun by left fielder Ryan Church, a bloop that turned into a double. The talk in the clubhouse afterward wasn't about how the Marlins came back, but how Simontacchi handled himself.
"He's a pro," Manager Manny Acta said. At no point was that more apparent than in the Nationals' five-run second. After he reached base on an error by Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Simontacchi charged to second on a grounder hit by Felipe Lopez. He slid hard into Florida second baseman Dan Uggla, preventing the double play from being turned, allowing a run to score. The play led to Cristian Guzman's two-out, two-run triple that made it 5-0.
"I just try and play the game of baseball the way it's supposed to be played," Simontacchi said.
That's exactly what Flores is here for -- to learn how the game is supposed to be played. Yesterday was only his seventh start, but he has seized every day as an opportunity to, as starter Brian Schneider said, "be very studious about it." When Schneider is catching, Flores peppers him with questions. "What was the strikeout pitch?" he'll ask. "How do you pitch that guy?"
"I don't care that much what I can do hitting," Flores said. "The most I care is calling the game, a good game. The other guys can do the rest."
So his effort started yesterday by being there for Simontacchi. The veteran pitcher said he had to shake off the sign from his rookie catcher just two or three times.
"It's just him knowing the game, and knowing the pitchers and being professional about it," Simontacchi said. "It's a gift, I'm sure. But at the same time, he works hard."
His work paid off yesterday. He drove in Washington's first run with a single in the second, then -- after the Marlins had climbed within 5-4 -- he scored Church with a two-out single that, as Acta said, "kind of brought the momentum back to our side."
Which is what the weekend did for the Nationals. It included those rain delays, that late night that turned into morning. But it also included three wins, and a couple of glimpses of players that might be here when sweeping series is more common than getting swept.