Ryan Zimmerman homers twice; Nationals beat Marlins, 7-1

Ryan Zimmerman, making his 12th start of the year, rounds the bases after his third-inning blast.
Ryan Zimmerman, making his 12th start of the year, rounds the bases after his third-inning blast. (Alan Diaz/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- If the Washington Nationals' newfound capacity for competent baseball clouded anyone's memory, Ryan Zimmerman provided an immediate and forceful reminder of his towering ability. For most of the season, the Nationals proved they could win without him. On the night Zimmerman returned to the lineup, he made you wonder what they can do with him.

Making his first start in nine days, Zimmerman blasted home runs in his first two at-bats Friday night and later added a double as the Nationals steamrolled the Florida Marlins, 7-1, before 20,856 at Sun Life Stadium. His right hamstring healed, Zimmerman led the Nationals to their third consecutive victory as the twin factors that mitigating his absence delivered -- pitching and defense. Scott Olsen oppressed his former team with his second consecutive run-free start, and Nyjer Morgan made a game-saving diving catch.

Zimmerman, Olsen and Morgan sent the Nationals to 13-10, second place in the National League East, half a game ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies and one game behind the New York Mets. The last day in April may seem too soon to start checking the standings, but the delicious novelty of the Nationals' position makes it irresistible. The last time they stood in second place at any point after April? August 9, 2005.

"This year, we're doing things to win instead of things to lose," Zimmerman said. "We understand that's it's very early and we have a long ways to go. I think the way we played in April, all the little things we did right, we know what we have to do to win each month."

The Nationals reached their surprisingly lofty place mostly without Zimmerman, who Friday night started for only the 12th time this season. He had last been in the starting lineup April 21, when he strained his right hamstring sprinting to second base. In his return, Zimmerman battered the ball as if he hadn't missed a game. He hit multiple home runs in a game for the fifth time and ripped three extra-base hits in a game for the first time.

"We got our horse back," Morgan said.

In his first at-bat against Ricky Nolasco, Zimmerman crushed a 3-2 fastball over the left field scoreboard and into the upper deck. In Zimmerman's next at-bat, this one with Adam Kennedy on first base in the third inning, Nolasco again reached a full count. He tried a cutter, and Zimmerman drilled it into the first row of seats in right field. For good measure, he lined a double in his third at-bat.

How can you explain it? Zimmerman had felt in a groove before he hurt his hamstring. He took regular batting practice, his goal to "mentally remember what you were doing when you were going good, implement into batting practice to stay sharp," Zimmerman said.

But before he dug in to the right-handed batter's box Friday night he had faced a real, live major leaguer in two at-bats over the past previous eight days. In those pinch-hit appearances, Zimmerman smoked a line drive at the second baseman Sunday and drove a warning track fly out the following day.

"All the time he was not playing, he was still working," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "But it's obviously a tribute to his ability and his talent."

While Zimmerman terrorized the Marlins, the sterling starting pitching that helped soften his absence remained. Olsen shut out the Marlins for six innings and struck out four. Olsen has pitched 13 consecutive scoreless innings, and Friday night he extended the Nationals' streak of quality starts to nine.

"I'd be lying to you if I told you it didn't mean a little bit more," Olsen said of facing the team that traded him.

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