Nationals sweep Cards out of DC
Zimmerman, Young fuel eighth-inning rally that seals win
WASHINGTON -- According to manager Manny Acta, a lot of people believe that he sets his goals too high.
From the first day he took over the Nationals, his goal was to see the team finish at .500 or better for the 2007 season. Many people probably thought he was out of his mind at first, because Washington won only nine of its first 34 games and looked like a reincarnation of the 1962 Mets, who lost 120 games.
But since that time, Washington is 42-35, and finds itself on a six-game winning streak with a record of 51-60 after defeating the Cardinals, 6-3, at RFK Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Nationals swept the three-game series and the six-game homestand.
"Obviously, everybody knows my expectations," Acta said. "For some people, the [expectations] are unrealistic, but we have two months to go, and the guys are just playing good baseball.
"We never said it was going to be easy. We are going to play our division for the most part, but I feel good the way we are playing right now."
The Nationals have been winning of late because of Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young, the bullpen and the defense. All four played a huge role in Sunday's win.
With the game tied at 3, the bullpen got itself into a huge jam in the top of the eighth inning, but lefty Ray King got the Nationals out it.
With one out, right-hander Luis Ayala allowed a double to Jim Edmonds and a walk to Chris Duncan. Acta then brought in King to face the left-handed-hitting Adam Kennedy, but Cardinals manager Tony La Russa responded by sending up the right-handed-hitting Yadier Molina to face King.
It didn't take long for King to douse the fire. Molina swung at the first pitch and hit a hard ground ball right into King's glove, and the Nationals were able to turn the double play to end the inning.
"My main goal was to try to get a ground ball somewhere," King said. "Fortunately, it went in my glove. I'm not going to say I caught it."
The bullpen has pitched 399 innings and has an ERA close to 3.60 for the season. Whenever his relievers are on the mound, Acta is confident that they can shut out the opposing team until the Nationals score runs to win the game.
"I can't say enough about those guys," Acta said. "They held them scoreless and gave us a chance to win. Ray King -- that was probably the inning right there. It was a huge double play for us."
Then it was Zimmerman's and Young's turn to put the Nationals ahead in the bottom of the eighth inning. St. Louis right-hander Ryan Franklin was on the mound and the Nationals had runners on first and third when Zimmerman came to the plate.
Zimmerman was behind in the count, 0-2, when he decided to choke up on the bat and battle Franklin. And did he battle. Zimmerman fouled off four consecutive pitches -- fastballs and sliders -- and then found the fifth pitch to his liking. He singled to left field, driving in Nook Logan and giving Washington the one-run lead.
"Franklin challenged me," Zimmerman said. "I kept fouling them off and then, finally, he made a pretty good pitch. It was down. I hit it off the end of the bat. I placed it in the right place."
Young called how Zimmerman battled Franklin "future greatness," whereas Acta was impressed that Zimmerman didn't try to hit a home run. It marked the fourth consecutive game in which Zimmerman was an integral part of a victory.
"He was just trying to make contact to get a base hit. It was a great at-bat," the skipper said. "That was a good breaking ball that he hit. If he had the pull approach, trying to hit the ball out, he probably would have ... missed the pitch. He is locked in right now."
Unlike Zimmerman, Young didn't waste any time. He took the first pitch he saw from Franklin and doubled to left-center field to drive in D'Angelo Jimenez and Zimmerman.
The defense played a huge role in ending the game. In the ninth, with two outs and closer Chad Cordero on the mound, Scott Rolen hit a sinking liner to right fielder Austin Kearns, who made a spectacular diving catch for the final out.
Kearns is not having a good year with the bat, hitting .250 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs, but you will never hear Acta complaining, because Kearns has been solid with the glove. Earlier in the game, for example, Kearns recorded an assist when he helped throw out Juan Encarnacion at the plate.
Acta went so far as to say that Kearns should be considered for a Gold Glove.
"I hate to make this comment," Acta said. "It's unfair at times when we vote for the Gold Glove, because every year, three center fielders win it, so if you are playing the corner, it doesn't matter how good you are. To me, Austin is one of the best right fielders in the league. As much as I was expecting his offense to be better than what it is right now, he means so much to my club. That's why I complain very little about his offense."
Pitching, defense and timely hitting by Zimmerman and Young. Put those things together, they equal a satisfying victory.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.