Zimmerman Plays Nats' Hero -- Again

Ryan Zimmerman takes an
Ryan Zimmerman takes an "emergency hack" at Brian Wilson's slider, depositing it softly into right field for his sixth game-winning hit in two seasons. (Photos By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

When Ryan Zimmerman steps to the plate at RFK Stadium with the chance to win a ballgame, he slows everything down, because the moment is different and there's no point denying it. He goes through his routine in the batter's box. He steps out. He reminds himself of the pitch for which he is looking, of what he wants to do with it. He inhales deeply, then steps back in.

"You tell yourself to relax, because you can get caught up in the moment," he said. "It's real easy to."

Zimmerman, though, doesn't. Yesterday, in such a situation, he won yet another game, floating a single to the opposite field in the bottom of the ninth inning, scoring Felipe Lopez from second in a 2-1 victory for the Washington Nationals over the San Francisco Giants. A calm, cool, flick of the wrists at a slider from Giants fireballer Brian Wilson, and Zimmerman was in the familiar position of raising his right fist as he rounded first, then fending off his teammates, who have taken to enveloping him in a scrum and punching him in the ribs when he wins games in such a fashion.

"They're not love pats," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "You put a little something behind it."

By now, the Nationals have plenty of practice delivering such blows, and Zimmerman has learned how to absorb them. Yesterday's game-ender was his third such hit this season, his sixth in his first two full seasons in the majors. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the most in baseball during that time, one more than Boston's David Ortiz, Minnesota's Justin Morneau and Houston's Carlos Lee. Throw in a bases-loaded walk that ended another game, and Zimmerman has been at the bottom of those piles more than anyone else in the game.

"He's the guy we want up there in those types of situations," Manager Manny Acta said. "He's the face of this franchise. He's going to be doing this for a lot of years."

That meant the seven-inning, two-hit effort of San Francisco lefty Barry Zito went for naught, that Giants slugger Barry Bonds -- who pinch-hit and grounded out in the eighth -- went hitless in his weekend here, and it allowed the Nationals to take two of three from another last-place club.

It also meant that the effort of lefty Matt Chico, making his first major league start since Aug. 17, came in a win. The 24-year-old was demoted to Class AAA Columbus after that appearance because he simply couldn't find the plate. His fastball, which is hardly overpowering, kept tailing, turning Brian Schneider from a catcher into a hockey goalie.

Yesterday, he shortened his stride and had a simple thought:

"I was going out there saying, 'I don't care if I give up 12 hits. I don't want to walk anybody.' "

In seven innings, he walked one and needed just 90 pitches. Contrast that with his outing before he was sent down: five walks, and those same 90 pitches got him through just 4 1/3 innings. He started 17 of the 25 hitters yesterday with strikes.

"His ball wasn't cutting as much," Schneider said.

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