- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2007

As he glanced at his lineup card entering the bottom of the ninth last night, Manny Acta couldn’t help but notice who was due to hit fourth in the inning.

“I’m counting hitters,” the Washington Nationals manager admitted.

Ryan Zimmerman already was one step ahead of Acta. Standing in the field in the top of the inning of a tie game, the 22-year-old realized the likelihood of him stepping into the box with everything on the line.

“You think about it the whole inning, and even the inning before when you’re out in the field,” Zimmerman said. “Knowing you’re up fourth, you know if you do get up to the plate, you’re going to have a chance.”

There’s no one the Nationals would rather entrust a ballgame to than Zimmerman, because there’s no one in the major leagues who thrives more in these situations. With his run-scoring single to left last night at RFK Stadium, Zimmerman didn’t just give Washington a 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, he extended a remarkable record in game-winning situations that belies his relative inexperience.

In the last two seasons alone, Zimmerman now has produced six game winners (three via home run, two via single, one via bases-loaded walk). Only reigning American League MVP Justin Morneau has done it as many times over that span.

“He has done some dramatic stuff since he’s been up here,” said Acta, whose club has won four straight to open this week-long homestand. “He doesn’t get rattled when that situation comes up, and I think that’s what he has shown here the last two years.”

In a back-and-forth game last night, right-handers Tim Redding and Kip Wells traded blows for six-plus innings before Washington took a 2-1 lead in the seventh. St. Louis tied it at 2-2 in the eighth.

Closer Chad Cordero (2-2) made it through the top of the ninth unscathed, though, setting the table for the game-winning rally off reliever Ryan Franklin (4-1).

Pinch-hitter Tony Batista got things started with a broken-bat single to left. Felipe Lopez grounded into a force out but managed to advance to second moments later on Ronnie Belliard’s bloop single.

That brought Zimmerman to the plate in precisely the kind of situation Acta wanted: first and second, one out, no place for the Cardinals to put him. This has been a difficult season for the young Washington third baseman, but he has come on strong over the last month, hitting .342 since June 30 to raise his average to .269.

Zimmerman fouled off Franklin’s first pitch, then took a ball just off the plate. He then turned on a 1-1 offering, smashing a hard ground ball through the left side of the infield. Lopez came around to score easily, and the Nationals mobbed Zimmerman between first and second following his latest act of late-game heroics.

“It’s all about staying within yourself, I guess,” Zimmerman said. “It’s real easy to get too excited, maybe swing at a pitch you wouldn’t want to, or swing at a pitch you can’t do anything with. The biggest thing is just to try to stay relaxed and not put the pressure on you.”

The Nationals, who wore retro Homestead Grays uniforms to honor the local Negro Leagues franchise, moved to within a half-game of fourth place in the NL East thanks in no small part to another strong pitching performance from an unlikely source: Redding, who allowed only one run over 61/3 innings to extend his surprising run since joining the rotation a month ago.

The right-hander, who last pitched in the majors in 2005, figured to be nothing more than a fill-in starter when he was called up from Class AAA Columbus despite a 5.32 ERA. He has proven to be invaluable to the club, posting a 2.43 ERA in six appearances while recording five straight quality starts.

“Pretty consistent,” Acta said. “From his first start, he’s been solid for us.”

Redding looked perfectly at ease on the mound last night, his only mistakes coming against the opposing pitcher of all people. Wells singled to right with two on and two out in the second, driving in St. Louis’ first run. The right-hander later singled to left, raising his average to a hefty .308.

Otherwise, Redding was in complete control, scattering seven hits while matching a career high with eight strikeouts (a mark he set only six days ago against the New York Mets).

The 29-year-old has been enjoying every minute of his return to the big leagues. And based on the way he has been pitching, he won’t be considered a mere fill-in much longer.

“I told myself after my [shoulder] surgery in ‘05 that if I got back to this level, it was going to be very hard for somebody to take it away from me again,” Redding said. “It’s something that I didn’t grab a hold of the first time I was up here. I kind of took it for granted. I don’t know if I’m on a vendetta or a mission or whatever, but I’m just trying to get better every start.”