- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

MIAMI — With a winning record all but a pipe dream at this stage, the Washington Nationals have altered their season goals.

They’ll try to win as many games as they can down the stretch. Manager Frank Robinson made that much clear yesterday. But more importantly, they’ll spend the next two and a half months trying to identify which players on their current (and possibly future) roster figure into their long-term plans and which ones do not.

They’ve known for some time that Ryan Zimmerman fits into the picture. Perhaps it’s time to start wondering whether Alex Escobar might, as well.

Escobar sure is making a strong case for himself. Last night, the journeyman outfielder came through again, lining a ninth-inning single up the middle to score Zimmerman from second and give Washington a sloppy-but-satisfying 7-6 victory over the Florida Marlins.

“I’ve been fortunate to be in those situations and be able to come through,” said Escobar, who is batting .522 (11-for-23) with two homers and eight RBI since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago. “Especially for a young player coming in to a new team, it’s a great opportunity.”

Escobar’s latest timely hit capped a wild game at Dolphin Stadium that included four final frantic innings.

The Nationals were rejoicing by night’s end, thanks to a ninth-inning rally started by Zimmerman. Facing reliever Logan Kensing, the 21-year-old third baseman hit a two-out double off the wall in left-center, extending his hitting streak to 17 games.

“It’s fun. It’s cool,” Zimmerman said of his streak, which is the longest by a rookie in franchise history. “But if I don’t get a hit, I come back the next day and try to get another one.”

With first base open and two outs, the Marlins chose to intentionally walk Nick Johnson, who already had three hits and three RBI in the game.

That brought up Escobar, a far less-proven hitter. But the 28-year-old, whose once-promising career has been derailed by a smorgasbord of injuries, responded by lining Kensing’s 1-0 pitch back through the box. Zimmerman scored just ahead of center fielder Reggie Abercrombie’s throw for the final 7-6 margin.

“It’s still a short period of time, but you can get a feel for a guy,” Robinson said. “He’s hitting in tough situations and having success.”

Washington’s victory wasn’t sealed yet, though. Chad Cordero nearly blew it in the bottom of the ninth when he had trouble fielding Alfredo Amezaga’s leadoff bunt and later threw wildly trying to pick Amezaga off second base. With the tying run 90 feet away, Cordero buckled down and sandwiched a pair of strikeouts around a walk for his 14th save — his first since June 17 against the New York Yankees.

“It was a long time ago,” he said.

Cordero’s shaky ninth was only the final crazy chapter of a game filled with unusual occurrences.

It began with both teams’ leadoff hitters, Washington’s Alfonso Soriano and Florida’s Hanley Ramirez, hitting first-inning home runs. It was only the 28th time in baseball history such events have transpired, though it’s happened three times this month.

The Marlins didn’t let Ramirez’s homer stand alone. Later that inning, Wes Helms crushed a 2-0 fastball from rookie left-hander Mike O’Connor into the left-field upper deck — a 441-foot bomb that put Florida up 3-1.

The deficit got as deep as 5-1 in the fifth, when Abercrombie turned a seemingly harmless leadoff bunt into a comedy of errors. Zimmerman came charging in on the ball and made an ill-advised throw to first that sailed high over Nick Johnson’s head.

Second baseman Marlon Anderson chased the ball down but then made an equally ill-advised throw from his knees, trying to gun Abercrombie down at second. That toss skipped past shortstop Felipe Lopez and into shallow left-field, where an asleep Soriano had to spring into action and retrieve the ball. By the time Soriano got there, it was far too late. Abercrombie had come all the way around to score on a single and two errors, leading to some firm words from Robinson to his novice left fielder.

“The play should have been backed up,” Robinson said. “Abercrombie should not have even had an attempt at scoring. … I don’t care where you’re playing. You know the mechanics of that play.”

Fortunately for Soriano, the Nationals overcame the sloppy play. They rallied to score four runs in the sixth and seventh off ace Dontrelle Willis, with Johnson coming through with an RBI double and a two-run single.

Florida took the lead back in the seventh when Robinson elected not to intentionally walk slugger Miguel Cabrera with first base open and two outs. Cabrera promptly lined a single to right to make it 6-5.

But Robert Fick brought Washington back again in the eighth, hitting a solo homer to right off Kensing and setting the stage for the dramatic finish.

“That was a nice game to win,” Zimmerman said. “As sloppy as it was, it was a good win for us.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the http://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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