Nationals Win a Tight One in Atlanta

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

ATLANTA, Oct. 1 -- The point, now, is to finish strong, even when the finish line itself doesn't promise much. Ryan Zimmerman knows this. For months now, the Washington Nationals have played games with only a night's dignity on the line, and Zimmerman has been there every time, enduring what few others manage to endure.

"That's the hardest thing to do," Zimmerman said. "To have a year where I've been this consistent, it's huge for me."

From their all-star, the Nationals take their cues. Sometimes, because of him, they also win late-season, grind-it-out games. That's what happened Thursday, in Washington's 2-1 victory over the Braves at Turner Field. Just hours before the first pitch, Atlanta had been eliminated from wild-card contention, and as a result, the home team played its first meaningless game of the year.

But Zimmerman, who went 2 for 4, has been home-brewing his own motivation for months. In July, when he was stuck in a post-hitting-streak funk, he approached coach Rick Eckstein after one game and begged to meet early the next day for extra batting practice. "I'm close," Zimmerman said. "I feel it. I'm close." He homered the next day. When he dealt with a spasm of throwing errors before the all-star break, he decided to force himself through additional throwing drills every day -- even when coaches urged him to give his arm a rest.

On Thursday, Zimmerman stroked two extra-base hits, almost single-handedly providing Washington's offense. His fourth-inning double drove in the Nationals' first run. His leadoff double in the ninth, a rip against Atlanta closer Rafael Soriano, staged Washington's eventual go-ahead run, made possible when Pete Orr poked an RBI single to left. Oh, and even better? In a dramatic bottom of the ninth, with runners on the corners and two outs, Zimmerman dove to snag a laser-beam grounder to third and sidearmed a throw to second to end the game.

"He's just a great ballplayer," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "You're seeing the development."

When players and coaches arrived at the stadium on Thursday afternoon, the evening's game retained a glimmer, potentially, of playoff relevance, at least for one side. The Braves were four games back of Colorado in the wild-card race. The Rockies' magic number was one, and the Braves needed plenty of magic indeed.

By the time Atlanta rookie Tommy Hanson threw the night's first pitch, the game had been sucked clean of playoff implications. In an afternoon game, Colorado defeated Milwaukee, 9-2. Some Nationals had followed the action on their iPhones, disappointed as their own series lost its luster. The Colorado game played on three flat-screen televisions in the Braves' clubhouse, though few players watched intently.

Bobby Cox, though, followed almost every pitch. From a closet-size room in a hallway leading to the field, Cox, already in uniform, watched the game from several side-by-side screens, as if tracking weather radar. Two other Braves employees huddled alongside, and the room reeked of cigar smoke. Cox had a stash of peanuts by his side. There, he watched his own team's season lose its meaning.

For whatever the subsequent Braves-Nationals game lacked in significance, it made up for with pitching. Hanson and Garrett Mock took turns on the mound, sparring partners in a duel of tall right-handers. Hanson faced the minimum through three; Mock helped himself with three double plays. Mock surrendered only a Nate McLouth solo homer in the third; Hanson allowed Washington to tie the score at 1 in the fourth when Zimmerman hit an off-the-wall RBI double to the gap in right-center. Hanson went seven innings; Mock six. Both allowed five hits and one run. The primary difference: Hanson strengthened his r?sum? for the National League's rookie of the year award. Mock atoned for a September in which he allowed 23 earned runs in 26 innings.

The game remained tied at 1 until the ninth, and for that, Washington could thank Tyler Clippard, who pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings, leaving only the night's final out to closer Mike MacDougal. When it was over, Mock stood at his clubhouse locker, and acknowledged that his final start of the year had been a satisfying one. But he saved his most passionate words to describe Zimmerman.

"I wouldn't even know where to start, to tell you the truth," Mock said. "Especially offensively and defensively. Because he is so good in so many aspects of the game. To have a guy like him there, I know there's been a lot of talk lately about him getting the Gold Glove and all that -- I think he's earned it. He's older than I am, and the way he's carried himself has just been unbelievable. So hopefully after everything is said and done he gets the credit he deserves."

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