By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
In this final week of a dark season, Washington's 157th game offered no real allure. Here, accomplishments don't endure. They happen, and the night ends, and they are done. This is late September baseball. Each finds his own way to block its reality, to wring from it whatever importance he can.
The Washington Nationals' principal contributors did just that last night. The main components of a 9-4 Washington win at Nationals Park -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Alberto González and pitcher Shairon Martis -- took control of the Florida Marlins, each powered by a different appreciation of the opportunity.
Zimmerman has regained the opportunity to play in full health, and wants to "finish strong so my confidence is up for next year." González gained the opportunity to start last night because of a teammate's illness. Martis gained the opportunity to enter Washington's starting rotation only because of another player's banishment to the bullpen.
Last night, these opportunities were converted:
For Zimmerman, the evening meant a two-hit game and his 14th home run -- tying him for the team lead -- to heck with the fact that he missed eight weeks this year with a shoulder injury.
For González, it meant a career-high four hits. The shortstop, who learned at 2:30 he would replace a flu-stricken Cristian Guzmán, scored three runs, smacked two doubles and contributed two RBI. He "stepped in," Manager Manny Acta said, "and had a great night."
For Martis, it meant his first career victory. He overcame a dangerous start -- 16 pitches in, he'd already allowed three hits and one run -- to pitch 5 1/3 innings, with just three runs. His parents, in town from Curacao, were scheduled to depart today, so yesterday was a last chance to pitch as he wanted. In his previous start, last Wednesday against the Mets, Martis had been shelled for six runs in three innings. His parents had watched that, too.
This time, they saw him beaming. "It feels amazing," he said, and as he spoke, the game ball was tucked in his locker. His red cap, shellacked with shaving cream from a sneak attack (courtesy of catcher Wil Nieves and fellow pitcher Collin Balester), was propped on a ledge across from his locker, on display like a museum piece.
"My goal was, like, before I went home, to get my first major league win, and I did it today," Martis said. "I will remember this one. I won't forget about it."
After those first-inning struggles, Martis U-turned. Josh Willingham skied a home run to lead off the second, sure, but after that, Martis retired nine in a row and 12 of 13. By the time he exited, he was all ready to thank Zimmerman and González for their support.
Those two catalyzed much of the early scoring. Zimmerman, third to bat in the top of the first, pounced on a low and inside 2-0 fastball from Florida's Scott Olsen. When the ball plunged about 12 rows behind the left field wall, the Nationals led 2-1. And the trajectory of this game -- Washington entered as losers in five straight -- largely changed.
Three times in the next five innings, Washington built its lead with single runs. González scored two of them and created the next. His leadoff single in the third was converted into Washington's third run when a Zimmerman grounder bounded past third baseman Jorge Cantú (an error) and Lastings Milledge lofted a sacrifice fly to left. His next at-bat, a double down the left field line, triggered Washington's fourth run when Zimmerman and Milledge followed with singles.
Then, in the sixth, just after Martis had exited and Washington's lead had shriveled to 4-3, González again was involved in a run. Here, with two outs, he made sure the Nationals took advantage of two earlier walks by stroking a liner to shallow center, driving in Willie Harris. In the eighth he doubled, good for another RBI.
The fortune of the 25-year-old's night owed itself, oddly enough to misfortune. González got the start only because the regular starting shortstop, Guzmán, walked into the clubhouse early in the afternoon complaining of chills and fever. Thus, González received his ninth chance to start for his new team, which he joined after a July 31 trade with the Yankees. A subsequent hamstring injury cost González 25 games, but in the short time he's had in Washington, he's hitting .410 (16 for 39) with seven RBI.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised," Acta said, "but I like what I see."
This win gave Washington a break from the anxieties of a trying week. The team had lost five in a row, and 10 of 12; it had also lost 13 of 15 against the Marlins, who were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
"We come out, and we owe it to ourselves to play hard in these last five or six games, and that's what we're going to do," Zimmerman said. "Why roll over? We might as well take it to the house."