They were the fascination of a summer gone to slumber -- the lifetime minor leaguer and the kid straight out of the University of Virginia. And as the Nationals crumbled, their bats going into the freezer, it wasn't hard to look at the statistics of Rick Short and Ryan Zimmerman and wonder why the forgotten man and the future of the organization weren't in big-league uniforms.

Now that it's September and they have finally arrived -- and it has turned out that major league pitching wasn't too hard for either one to hit -- they may become the great winter debate around the Nationals. As in, why weren't they here sooner?

In what was presumed to be a lost cause against Atlanta's John Smoltz, both found themselves in Washington's lineup yesterday. It was an inclusion that might not have drawn significant notice were it not for the fact that they had so much to do with the Nationals nearly beating the Braves.

Short's long home run to left in the sixth started the Nats on what would be a furious comeback from a 6-0 deficit. And Zimmerman delivered the hit that had been missing since June -- the last, final single in the bottom of the eighth that drove in Nick Johnson for what should have been the winning run.

Each hit was something the Nationals have desperately needed in these last few months, something big to spark a rally like Short's home run. And Zimmerman's single was the one last hit that put a rally over the top, rather than leaving it just short of fulfillment as many of the Nationals' comebacks have been this year.

Zimmerman was jammed on a fastball by reliever Chris Reitsma, yet managed to turn it into a line-drive single into left-center field. Short saw a fastball from Smoltz slide across the plate, took a big swing and watched as the ball sailed high over the left field fence.

"I don't know where the [home runs] come from," he said. "I'm not really completely surprised. I have a short swing, so if I can stay short and put my bat on the ball it will go."

If there was any doubt the two can hit at this level, it should be over. Short never got the call-up in 11 years because he was always perceived as what baseball people like to call a "Class AAAA" player, too good for the high minors but not good enough for the big leagues. Still, he's hitting .333 with two home runs and three RBI in seven games. Zimmerman also is hitting .333 in 15 at-bats and already has had some critical hits.

"I'm seeing the ball well," Zimmerman said. "I talk with the older guys a little bit. You can't get caught up with being in the big leagues, you have to be yourself. I don't think you can be surprised [about success here]. If you're surprised you can hit, then it's not saying a lot about your confidence."

Needless to say, the Nationals' confidence in him is growing, as evidenced by Manager Frank Robinson's decision to let him hit in the eighth rather than using someone more experienced.

"If he can hit, he can hit. I don't care if he came from Class Z league," Robinson said about the player straight out of Class AA.

Which may be Robinson's thinking on Short, as well.

"I realize the opportunities are probably going to be limited, so I've got to make an impact when I can," said Short, who nearly hit .400 for Class AAA New Orleans. "When you have a season like that I think everyone has confidence. They know I can hit."

Only the Nationals might have found out too late.