Marlins Extend Mastery Over Punchless Nats

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Florida Marlins arrived last night at Nationals Park in first place in the National League East in no small part because nearly every member of their lineup can hit a home run at any point, and because their bullpen -- formerly hideous -- has discovered more than a few usable arms.

But as the Marlins and the Washington Nationals play a three-game series this weekend, pick out the best player on the field. Last night, veteran outfielder Luis González delivered the blow that widened the margin in the Marlins' 7-3 victory, a three-run double in the sixth. Florida right-hander Ricky Nolasco countered with his best outing of the year, six innings in which the Nationals managed just four hits and scored just once.

All that helped forge the Marlins' sixth win against the Nationals in seven tries this season, the basis for their best start after 35 games in their short history. Yet none of it involves the best player on the field. That would be Hanley Ramírez, the Marlins' third-year shortstop.

"Hanley can do whatever he wants in the game," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "It's that simple."

On a night when the Nationals lost for the third time in four games, Ramírez's line looked rather pedestrian: 1 for 3, two runs scored, one batted in, a double and a walk. Nothing eye-popping. Here, though, is his influence on the outcome.

In the first inning, Nationals right-hander Tim Redding -- who was charged with five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, an effort he called "poor" -- allowed a bloop single to leadoff man Cody Ross, then struck out Jeremy Hermida. With Ramírez at the plate -- he is now hitting .409 since the Marlins dropped him from leadoff to third in the order seven games ago -- Ross was able to get a good jump toward second. He stole the base easily, and when Wil Nieves's throw skipped into center, the Marlins had a runner on third with one out. Ramírez did his job, lofting a ball to left. Sacrifice fly, Marlins 1, Nationals 0.

"He's, I think, the most gifted guy in the league," said Nationals infielder Aaron Boone, a teammate of Ramírez's last year in Florida. "That phrase the sky's the limit gets thrown around all the time, but it is. He's unbelievable. He can beat you so many ways and take over a game. He's really, really special."

Last night wasn't a takeover like April 20, when Ramírez hit two homers to beat the Nationals. This was far more subtle. Skip ahead to the fourth. Redding issued a leadoff walk to Hermida, one of a season-high four Redding allowed. That brought up Ramírez. Depending on the hitter, the Nationals shift their outfielders more dramatically than almost any team in the league. Thus, right fielder Austin Kearns was shaded well around toward right-center. Redding tried to follow the plan and bust Ramírez inside.

"I just threw the ball right down the middle," Redding said. Ramírez didn't miss it, drilling the ball to right, sending Kearns on a marathon of a run toward the corner. It all served to set up Jorge Cantú's two-run single to center. Marlins 3, Nationals 0.

Finally came Redding's undoing in the sixth. With Florida leading 3-1, Hermida singled to lead off the inning. Redding then faced Ramírez for the third time.

"Regardless of who he is," Acta said, "you have to throw him strikes."

Redding didn't. One measure of Ramírez's maturity at age 24: Redding tried to get him to chase, and he would have no part of it.

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