By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007
There is much to be said about all the pieces that led up to the Washington Nationals' sixth straight win yesterday afternoon. Pick from a list that includes reliever Ray King inducing a key eighth-inning double play ball, Nook Logan starting the game-winning rally with a beautiful bunt, or right fielder Austin Kearns chipping in one outfield assist to cut down a runner at the plate and finishing off a 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals with a stellar sliding catch.
But when it came down to it, there was one salient fact for the Nationals: With the score tied, the winning run 90 feet from the plate and two outs in the eighth, Ryan Zimmerman was at the plate.
"All the confidence in the world," first baseman Dmitri Young said.
Zimmerman beat the Cardinals with a single in the bottom of the ninth on Friday night, crushed them with two thunderous home runs on Saturday, then finished them with an off-the-end-of-the-bat single yesterday afternoon, taking an 0-2 slider from Ryan Franklin -- the same pitcher he victimized Friday -- and serving it into left field to score Logan. Young followed with a two-run double to left-center, and a tie score was suddenly a three-run lead. Just like that, the Nationals had a perfect 6-0 homestand.
"As a young kid, he's so doggone good, it's ridiculous," Young said. "Future greatness right there. That's all I can say about Ryan Zimmerman. He's a student of the game. He's got all kinds of talent."
That, more than anything, was on display this weekend. Young's hit was the clincher yesterday, and it allowed closer Chad Cordero to easily nail down his 23rd save in the ninth, when Kearns's diving grab took a hit from Scott Rolen. And Young's homestand, just like that of the Nationals, was quite nice. He went 11 for 23 (.478) with three doubles and six RBI, keeping himself in contention for the National League batting title.
Zimmerman, though, one-upped him. His 3-for-5 afternoon made him 14 for 27 (.519) for the homestand, a six-game stretch in which he hit four doubles, two homers and drove in 11 runs. With their third-place hitter finally hitting -- his average is up to .274, higher than it has been since April 6, the fifth game of the season -- baseball's lowest-scoring offense is suddenly producing.
"We feel like now," King said, "we're going to score five, six runs a game."
Which is quite a turnaround for a group that, in one 13-game stretch a month ago, didn't score five runs once. But while the offense has been inconsistent at best, one element that contributed to yesterday's win -- as well as to this perfect homestand -- was the bullpen, the Nationals' most solid component. Their production last week: 20 innings pitched, two runs allowed, an ERA of 0.90.
"Can't say enough about those guys," Manager Manny Acta said.
Yesterday, it was Saul Rivera relieving shaky starter Matt Chico, who lasted five innings and gave up solo homers to Ryan Ludwick and Adam Wainwright, the opposing pitcher. Luis Ayala pitched the seventh and got an out in the eighth. But with men on first and second, King came on, ostensibly to face the left-handed hitting Adam Kennedy.
But St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa pinch-hit for his own pinch hitter, sending up the right-handed hitting Yadier Molina. King's objective: Get a groundball. He got one on his first pitch, one right back at King.
"It went in my glove," King said. "I ain't going to say I caught it."
Whatever the semantics, King threw to second, and second baseman Ronnie Belliard threw on to first to complete a key double play.
That set it up for the Nationals in the bottom of the inning. Logan -- who went 11 for 21 on the homestand -- started with a smart bunt toward third base, a single. He advanced to second when Robert Fick laid down his own nice bunt on his second attempt. D'Angelo Jimenez walked, and with Belliard up, Logan stole third.
Zimmerman was in the on-deck circle, and he watched Belliard battle Franklin to a 3-2 count before he swung through a fastball. Zimmerman had never faced Franklin before Friday, but he took notes off Belliard's at-bat.
"The more pitches you see," Zimmerman said, "obviously the more comfortable you get with the pitcher."
Zimmerman took a slider for a strike, then swung through another slider down-and-away. He was in an 0-2 hole. So he made an adjustment.
"You could see the first swings were bigger, longer," catcher Brian Schneider said. "But he did what he was supposed to do. He shortened up."
And he began fouling pitches off. A fastball back to the screen. Two sliders into the stands. Another fastball, this one 92 mph.
"That kind of thing is frustrating for a pitcher, frustrating for a catcher," Schneider said. "He keeps fouling pitches off, and it's like, 'All right, what do we do now? In that situation, it's tough for a pitcher to continue to throw good pitches. He starts to get a little upset."
With the count still 0-2, Franklin came with a slider that was in the bottom part of the strike zone, "a good pitch," Zimmerman said.
But this is how things are going right now for Zimmerman, for the Nationals. He got that end of the bat on the ball, and it drifted into left. Young followed with his double, and the Nationals all but sailed to San Francisco, where Barry Bonds -- and history -- await.
"It's going to be fun," Zimmerman said.
Right now, everything is.