By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Nationals Park should have been a den of relief last night, because Ryan Zimmerman not only ended the longest stint without a home run of his career, but because he went 3 for 4 and drilled a tiebreaking, two-run double to lead the Washington Nationals to a 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves. "It's nice," Zimmerman said, and his smile showed not a hint of the anxiety that might have accompanied his tepid start.
But even as the Nationals won for the fourth time in five games, there was concern in the clubhouse. Closer Chad Cordero, already stripped of his marquee role because of a befuddling lack of velocity on his fastball, came in to mop up in the ninth inning of a game the Nationals led by four runs. Thirteen pitches into his performance, he had not only failed to mop up, but he had knocked over the bucket and created a mess. In fact, he was hurt.
Immediately after he threw a pitch to Atlanta's Kelly Johnson, Cordero clutched the back of his ailing right shoulder. There, he had a strain in his latissimus dorsi muscle. Tests showed no new injury to the shoulder itself, in which he has battled tendinitis. An MRI exam is scheduled for today, but Cordero said the athletic trainers told him he would almost certainly have to rest for two weeks.
"It [stinks]," Cordero said. "I want to be out there pitching. I hate not pitching and being on the DL and not being the closer. It's tough, and it's going to be even tougher for the next couple weeks."
The closer goes down, but the would-be star third baseman rises. If Zimmerman showed any signs of frustration over his mediocre April -- he entered last night's game hitting .222 with only four extra-base hits -- he masked it well. "Maybe when he was feeling good, and he missed his pitch," first baseman Nick Johnson said. "But not much."
There was no masking how his performance was affecting the Nationals' impotent offense, which entered the evening ranked 14th in the National League in runs. Other middle-of-the-order hitters such as Johnson and Austin Kearns have also struggled, but they are not saddled with the expectations the organization has put on Zimmerman. As Manager Manny Acta said, "We need him."
"He's our best player," center fielder Lastings Milledge said, "so he's going to be the guy who's being counted on every time, whether he's hitting .200 or whether he's hitting .340. . . . They're not going to give in to his average and look at his numbers. They got to respect him whether he's struggling or whether he's doing good."
Yet that has not always been the case in the season's first 27 games, a stint that began with Zimmerman beating the Braves in the first game at Nationals Park, a game-ending home run off reliever Peter Moylan that seemed to portend more power, more production. Yet when Zimmerman came to the plate in the third against Braves left-hander Tom Glavine, he hadn't homered in 98 at-bats, the longest stretch of his career.
"I don't worry about home runs," Zimmerman said. But he laid into a 1-0 pitch from Glavine, sending it to parts of Nationals Park that had not yet been reached, the seats just below the Red Porch restaurant in left-center field. It was followed, two pitches later, by Johnson's fourth, the Nationals' first back-to-back shots of the season, and Washington led 2-1.
"He knows that he has to carry us once in a while -- or most of the time," Acta said of Zimmerman.
That happened later, after April's hottest hitter -- Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones -- predictably tagged Tim Redding for a solo shot in the sixth, his eighth of the season. So Zimmerman got his chance in the seventh, after a single by Wily Mo Peña, a one-out walk to Felipe López and an infield single by Cristian Guzmán loaded them up.
Facing Braves reliever Blaine Boyer, Zimmerman fouled off a 2-1 pitch -- barely. But he got another fastball, and he sent it on a line to right. Jeff Francoeur, one of the best right fielders in the game, couldn't track it down. By the time Zimmerman arrived at second, the Nationals led 4-2, and Zimmerman's emphatic clap of his hands showed he believes he might be breaking out of, as he said, "what I went through." Milledge's two-run double added insurance runs.
"That's where I need to be," Zimmerman said. "That's when I do best, when I drive the ball that way. Hopefully I can stay right there."
Cordero, though, needs to be something completely different from what he is right now. Acta said he was concerned about him warming up, and his first pitch registered 77 mph on the scoreboard radar gun. He eventually popped one in at 85. But on the pitch to Kelly Johnson, "It didn't feel good at all," Cordero said. His weakened shoulder likely contributed to the condition.
"The trainer just said since the shoulder's weak, that's going to cause the other muscles to kind of try and pull a little bit harder," Cordero said. "They said that's probably what did it."
Whatever the cause, Cordero was out, and Jon Rauch was in. With one run in and two on, Rauch retired Jones on a fly ball to close it -- a task that, with Cordero's status in considerable question, will fall to him for the foreseeable future.