Cardinals Beat Nationals, 6-2

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ryan Zimmerman talks about consistency in the manner that an explorer speaks of the lost continent. It is defined by the everlasting search to neutralize the ups and downs. Nobody avoids them altogether. A few, like Albert Pujols, come close. Zimmerman just hopes the ups and downs level into a satisfying mean.

In April, Zimmerman experienced the best worst month of his career. He built the foundation for a breakout season with a still-growing hitting streak. He participated in just five wins. He signed a five-year, $45 million contract, and after the year ends, he will receive a lump sum of $500,000, his signing bonus. ("It should be one of those Happy Gilmour checks," Zimmerman said.) As a result, the Washington Nationals have become, more than ever, his personal investment. This makes him very rich. It also connects him, for the moment, to the most woebegone franchise in baseball.

While Zimmerman waits to see any consistency from his team, he agonizes over the search. Yesterday, while going 2 for 4, the third baseman extended his hitting streak to 20 games, best in baseball. His team, with a 6-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park, fell to 5-17, the worst record in the majors. The Cardinals clobbered four home runs.

A-grade prospect Jordan Zimmermann, making his third big league start, endured his first setback -- in large part because of Pujols, who homered and scored three runs. Ryan Zimmerman, meantime, sorted for a way to keep his team's struggles in perspective. Opt for a long view, after all, and a year's ups and downs never feel as severe.

"That's how it all evens out," Zimmerman said. "Baseball, it's so hard to be consistent. That's why the guy on this team over there" -- he motioned toward Pujols -- "is one of the best in the game, because he's always consistent. That is everyone's goal."

Zimmerman breaks a season into 100-at-bat chunks. Sometimes, he figures, he'll go 20 for 100. Sometimes he'll go 35 for 100. By the end of this weekend, Zimmerman should get his 100th at-bat. Right now, he has 94. Historically a slow starter, the 24-year-old is hitting .298. The average reflects the most unusual of hitting streaks: Not once has he topped two hits in a game.

"It's the consistency," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "Before he used to be on for a week, go on a tear, and be off for a week or so. But he's been consistent."

"This has been the easiest year for me," Zimmerman said. "In year one, nobody really knows who you are. Nobody knows how to pitch you. Year one, it might not be the easiest, but it has a chance to be. You see so many fastballs, and so on. And year two they know what you do well, they know what you do bad, and that whole year is kind of spent adjusting. But this year I'm a little more comfortable, relaxed I guess you could say. Not that I didn't trust myself before, but I do have more confidence."

You can see the difference. Before the series, Zimmerman approached Pujols, standing behind the batting cage; they ended up chatting for five minutes. In drills, Zimmerman always picks a moment to have fun. At third base, he'll hold his mitt dead still, a target for catcher Wil Nieves, refusing to break posture (no matter how many balls sail high or low) until the catcher nails the spot.

Of course this year, the lighter moments have been fleeting. Yesterday, St. Louis countered an efficient, quick-working Jordan Zimmermann with the most efficient trump card. Home runs. Lots of them. The first of those came in the first inning, with nobody aboard, when the 22-year-old rookie threw a 3-1 pitch to Pujols. The fastball traveled about 95 mph, and right down the middle. It was the 13th pitch of the night, the 187th of Zimmermann's career, and undoubtedly the worst. Pujols loaded and turned -- a Cape Canaveral shot. The ball disappeared into the sky and reentered the atmosphere behind the left field stands, bouncing on the concrete walkway that was flooded with late-arriving fans.

Before Zimmermann exited after 5 2/3 innings, St. Louis made him pay for a few more too-high pitches. In the fourth, Chris Duncan (with Pujols aboard) smacked a homer to right-center. In the sixth, Ryan Ludwick (with Pujols aboard) crushed a homer to straightaway center. Despite a Willie Harris two-run homer in the seventh and a first-and-third, one-out chance in the eighth, Washington never made it close.

When Ryan Zimmerman talks about his team, he is immediately drawn to all the things that have gone wrong.

"Obviously, we should be playing better defense, but if you look at the six games where we had the lead going into the ninth, I think you win three of those, four of those like you're supposed to, now you're 9-11 instead of 5-15 or whatever," Zimmerman said. "So I think if you look at it that way, there's no way we should be this bad.

"I mean, even Mariano Rivera blew a save. It happens to everybody. Unfortunately it happened to us six times in a row, and everybody is magnifying and compounding it. But for people to judge us on one month is a little bit early to pass judgment."

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