Zimmerman Answers Heat With Home Run

Manager Manny Acta and Lastings Milledge congratulate each other after the Nationals' seventh straight victory.
Manager Manny Acta and Lastings Milledge congratulate each other after the Nationals' seventh straight victory. (By Greg Fiume -- Getty Images)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

You could chart the fluctuations yesterday in Washington's wild game with two pitches, both the third-inning fastball that almost removed Ryan Zimmerman's head and the fourth-inning fastball that Zimmerman removed from the ballpark altogether.

Indeed, to advance their winning streak to seven yesterday afternoon, the Washington Nationals withstood the wild moments -- high-and-tight pitches, a combined five hit batsmen, a near-blown lead in the sixth-inning -- and answered with the most emphatic response possible: Always, they maintained order. With composure and, thanks to Zimmerman, with power, the Nationals defeated the Phillies, 7-4, at Nationals Park, where in the last week the home team has re-colored its reputation.

Maybe an earlier version of the Nationals -- like, say, the team of any previous Monday since spring -- wouldn't have handled this game's obstacles with such certainty. But here, in front of 28,393, everything worked, even when it shouldn't have.

Starter Tim Redding (10-8) was wild -- "He lacked command of his fastball," Manager Manny Acta said -- pegging two batters, walking three and letting his pitch count soar. Still, he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.

Meanwhile, Washington capitalized on another wild starter, Philadelphia's Kyle Kendrick, who walked three, plunked Elijah Dukes, and twice threw right-at-ya heat to Zimmerman, prompting home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman to take several steps toward the mound and issue warnings to both dugouts. Later, Acta dismissed the notion that either pitcher was throwing inside intentionally. "People can interpret it any way they want, and the umpires do whatever they feel like, but I didn't think there was anything to it," Acta said. "We have no animosity against the Phillies."

Washington cut much of this game's tension with hitting. Kendrick entered the fourth inning once-warned and twice scored upon, and there, the Nationals greeted him with the sort of offense that's become commonplace in the last five games, a span in which they've scored seven or more runs each time.

Despite two 1-5 putouts in the inning -- one on a fielder's choice; one on a pickoff play -- the Nationals scored four runs, opening a 6-0 lead. A Willie Harris triple scored Redding, who had reached on a fielder's choice. And two batters later, after a Cristian Guzmán double, Zimmerman turned a Kendrick fastball into an 11 p.m. highlight. On a 1-1 pitch, with two outs, he unloaded. Some 440 feet later, a two-run homer landed beyond the center field fence. It was his 10th of the year, and second in a week.

"He's the man," Harris said of Zimmerman, who's batting .444 during the winning streak.

"I'm just feeling more comfortable," Zimmerman said.

For the Nationals to maintain comfort, they simply needed to hold the lead. And that looked promising before the sixth. Entering that frame, Redding, despite himself, had not allowed a hit; he had saved his best pitches for just the right moments, like the 3-2 fastball he used to strike out Ryan Howard in the first, when runners stood on second and third.

But then, in the sixth, Redding's no-hitter ended -- after 94 pitches and almost two hours -- with a Shane Victorino infield hit. Two batters later, Howard pounded a double down the right field line. Redding walked the next hitter, ending his afternoon at 106 pitches. Unfortunately, the inning was just beginning.

"I was beat after about the fourth inning," said Redding, who finished with 5 2/3 innings and three runs allowed. "It just didn't feel like I had my best stuff, and was fortunate to make good pitches when I needed to."

Perhaps Redding didn't have his best stuff, but those who followed didn't even have Redding's stuff. Charlie Manning walked the only batter he faced on four pitches. Rookie Marco Estrada entered, walked Pat Burrell, hit Chris Coste and then went to a 3-2 count on pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz.

The bases were loaded. The fans were groaning after every ball. The television cameras kept panning the Washington dugout, zooming in on Acta. Ruiz was the go-ahead run.

"All of a sudden," Estrada said, "my off-speed stuff -- I just couldn't throw it over the plate."

But he threw the final pitch of the inning on the inside edge of the plate, and Ruiz tapped to third. Inning over. Threat finished.

Not since June 2005 has Washington had such a lengthy run of winning. This is the team's second-longest streak since moving to the District; the last time the Nationals had such a hot streak, a summer during which they ended up winning 10 in a row, they were a first-place team. Yesterday, they settled for beating a second-place team.

"The team is playing unbelievable right now," Redding said. "It's fun, coming to the field. We know we have a great chance of winning, and we've got all three aspects of our game clicking at the same time."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company