Holding Steady as Nats' Skid Grows

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

In the end, Ryan Zimmerman could do only so much last night. He turned one inning into zilch by slapping into a double play. He jump-started another inning with a double and watched others turn it into zilch. He might be the voice of this franchise, but he is not its arms, legs and backbone. When the Washington Nationals lose, Zimmerman, the leader, follows.

Washington's defeat yesterday -- a desultory 9-3 loss against the New York Mets at Nationals Park -- in many ways followed a familiar pattern. A rookie pitcher, Collin Balester, let mid-inning mistakes, including two home runs, interrupt his early-inning groove. The offense scored just three runs, all in the seventh inning. A close game, protected by closer Joel Hanrahan, collapsed into a blowout because of four ninth-inning hits and two errors. A losing team comes to know this procession: You walk off the field, shower without talking much and get ready to do it again the next day.

Zimmerman knows this procession, too, because for the third season in a row, August has nothing to do with contention. Purpose must come from elsewhere. In his sport, where emotion doesn't spike -- it accumulates and recedes drip by drip -- this is the most dangerous time of year. Summer slows. The statuses of the poorest teams are immutable, part of the daily grind.

Subtle is the difference between losing professionally and losing passively. And Zimmerman is studying the ways to make sure losing doesn't become a part of every August.

"Your job is to show up and win every day," Zimmerman said yesterday. "Listen, I still love playing it, whether we've lost 10 in a row or won 10 in a row."

Seven in a row -- that's now the losing streak. During that span, Washington has been outscored 48-11. The streak has stemmed from a span of games against teams -- first Milwaukee, now New York -- vying for something Zimmerman has never even sniffed: the postseason. Washington has decided to cast the remainder of its season as a learning program, where Balester can figure out how to combat a lineup the second time around, where management can determine whether Hanrahan is suited for the closer's job.

Because he's a cornerstone of the franchise's future, Zimmerman has a unique perspective on all this; the development of his teammates will mold the arc of his career. Though he's just 23, his major league experience -- and his importance to the franchise -- give him the weight of a veteran. How do you fulfill your professional obligation in a hopeless August? The Nationals, baseball's youngest team, look to Zimmerman to find out. For guidance, they rely on a player who hasn't been a winner since he turned pro.

"He might be monotone, but once the door is closed, he's a leader," said Balester, who lasted six innings, allowing five runs -- including two in the fourth, two more in the fifth on a Brian Schneider home run. "He's one of the guys everybody looks up to, even though he's one of the youngest."

This much Zimmerman knows.

It's better to lose with youth, as the team is doing now, than with "a bunch of 30-year-olds on one-year contracts," he said.

When you lose to better teams, let it bother you just enough; take it as a sign of what you're missing. Zimmerman says the Nationals are rebuilding "the right way," but "we're many pieces away in terms of contending. When it comes down to it, it's a business. If you're playing a team with a $120 million payroll, they're getting paid all that money for a reason."

When the Nationals promoted Zimmerman to the big leagues in September 2005, the team still had Vinny Castilla on its roster. Castilla provided the model for what Zimmerman now tries to copy. Among the rules: Never cheat on your preparation. ("It's almost like karma," Zimmerman said. "I know it sounds weird.") Relish the companionship. (Even in a losing clubhouse, the camaraderie still beats that in most jobs.) Look at every day as a stand-alone piece; the bigger picture will only make you crazy. Zimmerman reminds himself of those things when he needs a boost.

Said Zimmerman, who finished yesterday 1 for 3: "I warm up the same way every day whether we've won 10 in a row or lost 10 in a row. That's why so many baseball guys are, like, not boring -- but nobody wants to say anything too radical. Like, can you imagine if [Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver] Chad Johnson was on this team? Everybody would be thinking, 'What is this guy talking about? This guy is crazy.' "

Zimmerman's basic point: When your team is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, the monotone can be your best defense.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company