By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007
The words could have sounded hollow coming from D'Angelo Jimenez, who had been to the plate 25 times as a Washington National and had all of one hit. That .040 average glared from the scoreboard above, mocking him. But just yesterday afternoon, he boasted to Manager Manny Acta.
"Yo soy un tolete," he said. "Yo estoy bien."
In so many words, Acta said, Jimenez reminded him: "I am a stud. I am a good hitter."
So it came to the 10th inning last night, and the stud with the .040 average was at the plate as a pinch hitter, a role in which he had zero hits in 19 at-bats. Finally, he hit the ball hard. Finally, the ball went through. Finally, Jimenez had contributed something, driving home the winning run in a 5-4 victory over the Colorado Rockies that for the better part of eight innings looked as if it would be a loss.
"I told him: 'I'm a good player, I'm a good hitter,' " Jimenez said. "Just, everybody goes into a slump. It kind of happened to me. It's the first time being in that role and that situation."
That role is as a bench player on a last-place club, one who must piece together a day's worth of at-bats over the course of a week. But Jimenez's hard single up the middle off Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins scored Austin Kearns from third base with one out in the 10th, completing a comeback from a 4-1 deficit. The comeback was sparked by a bullpen that retired all 12 men it faced, and was made without the services of the Nationals' best hitter, first baseman Dmitri Young, who was ejected for arguing a called third strike in the third inning.
Jimenez's hit resulted in him thrusting his right fist into the air as he ran toward first base, an act of relief as much as triumph, then a bit of a melee at the center of the infield, where Jimenez had to fight his way out of a celebratory pile. This is a man who entered the season having played in 568 major league games, having hit .264 for his career, someone who was once a top prospect in the New York Yankees organization. To be sent to Class AAA Columbus, as he was to start the season, and then to sit on the bench was foreign to him.
"His confidence, it's good," Acta said. "The guy knows. The guy has won batting titles in winter ball and has hit at the big league level."
Yet those numbers -- so stark, with everyone in the stadium and the clubhouse aware of them -- can wear on a player.
"It's kind of frustrating," Jimenez said.
Tony Batista, another major league veteran and former starter now reduced to pinch-hitting status, has talked to Jimenez about the role. In the sixth inning, Batista came on as a pinch hitter with runners on first and third and the Nationals down 4-2. He flew out.
"It's tough, because only a couple of years ago, we were playing every day," Batista said. "But he knows he can hit."
Did the frustration show?
"Maybe he felt that way," Batista said. "But he didn't say anything."
That the Nationals would end up in extra innings would seemed at best unlikely when the eighth inning rolled around. They had been toyed with by a 23-year-old pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, who was making his third major league appearance, his first of the year, and had posted a 5.85 ERA at Class AAA Colorado Springs. Washington starter Matt Chico had allowed two-run homers to Troy Tulowitzki and Garrett Atkins -- both of which followed walks -- and the Nationals trailed 4-2.
And in the third, they lost Young, their only reasonably consistent offensive performer. Young came up with runners on first and third, the Rockies leading 2-1. It is in such situations that Young has become the Nationals' go-to player.
Yet Ubaldo Jimenez came with a 2-2 fastball. Young jackknifed his gigantic body a bit. Clearly he felt the pitch was inside, and that he had worked the count full. Home plate umpire Rob Drake, though, saw it differently. He quickly called Young out on strikes.
Young stared at the plate for a moment and muttered. He continued muttering as he walked slowly toward the Nationals' dugout. Drake responded by shaking his face mask at Young, who turned back around and yelled at Drake, now paces away.
After Drake's second shake of his facemask and Young's third response, Drake tossed Young. By that point, Acta was on the field, and he and on-deck batter Ryan Church swiftly got between Young and Drake.
"Heat of the moment," Acta said.
Without Young, the Nationals had to turn elsewhere for a rally. They did so in the eighth, when 22-year-old backup catcher Jesus Flores -- another player dealing with infrequent at-bats -- came up with two outs and men on first and second. Flores drilled a fastball on the outside part of the plate into right, enough to drive in one run. But Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe allowed the ball to roll through his legs. Kearns scored from first to tie the game, and Flores ended up on third.
"I was very surprised," Flores said.
Not, perhaps, as surprised as Jimenez. Kearns had singled to start the 10th, advanced on Brian Schneider's sacrifice bunt and then again on a wild pitch. And when Jimenez's single shot past Hawkins and the pile of people arrived atop him, he was a stud for one moment, but a stud nonetheless.