By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; D01
DENVER -- Without exercising hyperbole, Ryan Zimmerman could claim each successive game he plays as the most significant of his career. Superstardom approaches for Zimmerman, but what he knows most intimately in the major leagues is losing. The Washington Nationals, the only team he's ever played for, the franchise he more than any player represents, have not sniffed contention since the moment Zimmerman arrived until now.
This season has served as Zimmerman's initiation to winning baseball, an introduction that continued Thursday night with a 14-6, eight-inning victory over the Colorado Rockies at rain-soaked Coors Field. Before 20,795 fans, Zimmerman went 3 for 5, blasted two home runs and drove in a career-best six runs, making moot John Lannan's uneven return to the mound.
The Nationals will wake up Friday morning in an unfamiliar position, with a chance to finish the day tied for first place. They moved to 20-15, one game behind the Philadelphia Phillies and five games above .500 for the first time since Sept. 17, 2005 -- 16 days after Zimmerman made his major league debut.
"I always kind of wondered what it would be like to have people talk about how good you're playing instead of how bad you're playing," Zimmerman said. "It's been fun so far. We have a lot of work left to do. We're excited to kind of keep going."
After eight consecutive games decided by one or two runs, Washington could finally relax thanks to a seven-run outbrust in the eighth that tied a Nationals record for runs in one inning. Cristian Guzmán provided the biggest blow, a pinch-hit, three-run triple. By that time, puddles had collected on the infield.
"To kind of add on, because we've had a chance to do that a couple times and we haven't done it, to finally come up with the hits that take from that one-run lead to a four- or five-run lead was good for us," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman provided the difference in the Nats' latest victory. He crushed both his home runs on sliders from Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin, a two-run shot in the first and a three-run blow in the fifth. He added an RBI single during the eighth-inning onslaught.
At first, it seemed Lannan had allayed any concerns about his sore elbow. Pitching under horrendous conditions, he held the Rockies scoreless through four innings, allowing two walks and two hits. But he could not escape the fifth. The Nationals had just taken a 6-0 lead on Zimmerman's second home run, but Lannan allowed four hits and a walk while retiring only two, allowing the Rockies back into the game.
In the fifth, Lannan felt some stiffness his flexor tendon, the part of his elbow that flared before and forced him to miss his last start. Lannan did not see the new soreness as a long-term issue, although Manager Jim Riggleman wants to see how Lannan feels once he arrives at the park Friday.
"The first four [innings] felt good, warming up felt good," Lannan said. "And then it tightened up. When it happens, it's kind of tough to really control, to really get out there and extend. The ball was up, and I wasn't able to make big pitches when I needed to. No excuses. It feels fine now. In that inning, it kind of tightened up on me."
Much of the focus surrounding the Nationals' uplifting start has been on what is new. The changes make it tempting to overlook Zimmerman and what he's endured to play, at last, on a winning team. By May 14 during every other full season of Zimmerman's tenure, the Nationals were somewhere between six and 12 games out of first place. Zimmerman had lost 359 times in the 602 games in which he appeared before this season. That makes a .404 winning percentage -- 65-97 over a full season.
"He's been through a lot of losing," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I'd like to see him get rewarded with some meaningful games late in the season. You like to get to the point where you get to the ballpark and you're playing for something late."
Before this year, not counting the first 10 games of a season, Zimmerman had spent five days of his career out of last or fourth place and zero days in first or second. Zimmerman noticed a difference in spring training: He could look around the clubhouse and reasonably expect who would play around him the rest of the season.
"It's a little more professional feel," Zimmerman said. "As far the people shuffling in and out, it's a lot easier to become a team hanging around the same guys. It's just a better atmosphere all the way around.
"The guys we have here now all know what we need to do. You don't have to worry about anyone else. You don't have to do any of that stuff. We're all playing for the same thing."
On Thursday night, the Nationals matched their largest margin of victory this season and highest hit total in a game with 16. Zimmerman enhanced his gaudy stats, sending his slugging percentage to .691, his on-base percentage to .375 and his home run total to eight. The best part is, it all means something.
"It's weird. Obviously, these games mean everything," Zimmerman said. "You see teams miss the playoffs by a game or two every year. If they had won two or three more games in May, they would have won it. We just go game to game. As cheesy as it sounds, I think that's the way you have to do it. It's kind of pointless to get too high or too low. It's not an exciting way to look at it, but that's how you have to."