By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO, May 13 -- Here was the moment Ryan Zimmerman said he would gladly accept in exchange for his 30-game hitting streak.
In the seventh inning, with the Nationals rallying and Zimmerman still hitless, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy chose to intentionally walk the 24-year-old third baseman. The move backfired: Elijah Dukes drove in two runs with a broken-bat single, the key hit in the Nationals' 6-3 win over San Francisco.
Zimmerman's streak -- just the seventh of 30 or more games this decade -- quietly ended here Wednesday afternoon. Zimmerman went 0 for 3 with two walks, failing to hit the ball out of the infield. In his final at-bat in the ninth inning, he grounded into a force play, then stood stoically at first as the crowd at AT&T Park rose to give him a standing ovation.
"I'll tell you, it makes you appreciate how much 56 really is," he said afterward, laughing.
Zimmerman was still a month's worth of games from Joe DiMaggio's steroids-impervious record, which has stood since 1941. But the chase had reverberated throughout baseball and, in some ways, diverted attention from the Nationals' appalling start. Moments after the game, ESPN broadcast the end of the streak as its lead story, and several players looked up at the clubhouse television to watch.
"He put us on the map a little bit with what he did," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.
Zimmerman had said that he would happily trade the streak for a win, and that's pretty much how it went down. After another horror show the night before, the Nationals (11-21) hinted at something of a future as they finished an eventful West Coast swing 4-4. Right-hander Shairon Martis, 22, is now 5-0 as he throttled his former team on two hits in seven innings. First baseman Nick Johnson had four hits and two RBI -- his seventh RBI in the past two games -- and Kip Wells even registered a save.
Throughout the streak, Zimmerman had seemed a man apart, calmly and rhythmically stroking hits while his club went up in flames. In the end, though, it was his streak that was a sidelight: Zimmerman played almost no role Wednesday in the Nationals' offense, which scored 49 runs during the eight-game trip.
The at-bat that will be remembered came in the seventh, with the Nationals leading 2-0 and runners at first and second. It had been rare that Zimmerman made it this interesting; he extended his streak on his first at-bat in 14 of the 30 games, and on the second at-bat in nine games.
Left-hander Barry Zito, looking much tougher than last year, had gotten Zimmerman to ground into a double play in the first inning. In the third, he battled Zimmerman over a 10-pitch at-bat and then walked him.
This time, his first pitch was in the dirt. It one-hopped catcher Steve Holm and dribbled to the backstop. Both runners moved up. Bochy was thus left with a decision over whether to pitch to Zimmerman or walk him intentionally to create a force.
Bochy decided to walk him, drawing a smattering of boos from the fans who were aware what was going on. "Once the wild pitch happened, we had no choice," Bochy said. "You are behind on the count and you have the hottest hitter in baseball up there. You are just trying to limit the damage."
Neither Zimmerman nor Acta seemed bothered by the move.
"No way, it's the game," Zimmerman said. "They're trying to win the game, not cater to my hitting streak."
Acta said: "I understood what Bruce did totally. You have to do it in that situation. I would have done it myself."
Bochy brought in right-hander Merkin Valdez to face Josh Willingham. Willingham scorched a line drive to third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who speared it above his head with the white of the ball still showing.
After that, however, Dukes shattered his bat by looping a base hit into center field, scoring two more runs.
"I told you every day that I'd rather win than continue the streak," Zimmerman said. He acknowledged that he was disappointed to see it go. Then he added: "It would have sucked a lot more if we had lost."
"I'm not relieved it's over, because I'd like to have done it as long as I can," he said. "But it will be nice to kind of go back to your routine and not be worried about every hit."