Zimmerman Backs Redding's Fine Effort

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, April 2 -- April is just a couple of days old, ski hats are still necessary during batting practice and the cherry blossoms should remain in bloom until the Washington Nationals return from the road next week. It is the definition of early in the season, and the Nationals know it.

But take what happened over the past four days, culminating in Tim Redding's sterling seven-inning, one-hit outing Wednesday night. The Nationals' 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at blustery Citizens Bank Park -- provided by Redding and Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a homer for the game's only run and played sterling defense -- gave them three wins in their first three games.

Certainly, the sweltering days of August are a long way off, and first place in April is akin to winning the Iowa caucuses. Hello, Gov. Huckabee.

Still, given that this franchise began last year with a 1-8 disaster, this is progress -- progress that has delivered not only competitiveness, but an edge in the clubhouse. A Washington-based baseball franchise hasn't been 3-0 since 1951.

"The team motto seems to be: Believe," said Redding, who out-dueled Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels. "Just go out there and believe. Believe that we can compete. Believe that we can play with anybody in the league. . . . Throw anybody out there, we're going out there every game believing that we have a chance to win."

Redding gave the Nationals their best chance against Hamels on Wednesday, taking advantage of a wind blowing in from left field and dominating a Philadelphia lineup that has no shortage of stars. He walked three -- the third man the only batter he faced in the eighth, before Manager Manny Acta lifted him -- and gave up only Pedro Feliz's two-out single in the second. After that, he retired 14 in a row at a yard not known for allowing such results.

"I don't care if the wind was blowing in or not," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "To face that lineup and give up one hit -- on a 3-0 pitch -- in this ballpark? That's the best-pitched game I've caught in this ballpark. He had command of everything."

So, for now, the Nationals command the National League East. It means little four days into the season. Yet consider the list of matchups thus far. Odalis PĂ©rez over Atlanta's Tim Hudson? Check, a win provided by Zimmerman's game-ending home run. Matt Chico over Philadelphia's Brett Myers? Check, a victory decided by a five-run, ninth-inning uproar. And now, Redding over Hamels, who countered with eight innings of one-run ball himself.

Mismatches to everyone in the baseball world -- everyone outside the Washington clubhouse. But the Nationals were bolstered over the winter by new additions such as center fielder Lastings Milledge and Lo Duca. They were bolstered, too, by the final two weeks of last season, when they faced only the Phillies and the New York Mets -- each desperately fighting for the division title -- and went 7-6, driving fans from both cities stark-raving mad.

"I think that probably kind of gave us an edge," Zimmerman said. "It kind of gave us a chip on our shoulders like, 'Hey, these guys aren't that much better than us.' They have some big-name free agent guys that make a lot of money, but we have more of the younger guys that, in a couple years, might have just as much talent. We have to be, I think, a little bit on edge to be able to beat them."

Zimmerman might provide it. Even in the midst of Redding's performance, the 23-year-old third baseman made the two key plays in Wednesday's win. Hamels -- who posted a 1.97 ERA in five starts against Washington last year -- was rolling through the Nationals, allowing only three singles through five innings when Zimmerman came to the plate to lead off the sixth.

Since christening Nationals Park with the ninth-inning homer Sunday night against Atlanta, Zimmerman had gone without a hit, and he was 6 for 29 career against Hamels. But with the count 1-2, he got a fastball up and away, and he went with it. The ball soared up into the wind, which blew it toward the right field foul pole. There, it settled into the seats -- his second hit, and second homer, of the year.

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