- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

The Washington Nationals figure to be playing in the most scrutinized series of the week as they land in the midst of the Great Home Run Chase of 2007, a rare step into the spotlight for the unheralded bunch.

Not that a change of scenery can do Washington that much good — especially after yesterday’s 6-3 victory over St. Louis at RFK Stadium completed a 6-0 homestand.

“I’m actually not looking forward to going anywhere the way we’re playing at home right now,” manager Manny Acta said.

The winning streak — the Nationals‘ longest since a 6-0 stretch at RFK against the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco in July 2006 — was extended with the same hallmarks that have punctuated the club’s recent play.

A standout effort from the bullpen. A timely defensive play or two. And perhaps most important, effective hitting from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Indeed, it was Zimmerman’s RBI single in the eighth off reliever Ryan Franklin that gave the Nationals (51-60) a permanent lead against the reeling Cardinals (50-58). It also pushed Washington to 30-29 at RFK, the first time all season it has nosed above .500 at home.

Zimmerman played a significant part in all three victories against St. Louis. He finished Friday’s victory with an RBI single in the ninth, then enjoyed his first career multihomer game in Saturday’s rout. Yet his last at-bat yesterday might have been more impressive.

The Nationals had men on the corners with one out when Franklin (4-2) quickly got ahead 0-2 with a pair of sliders. Zimmerman proceeded to foul off three straight pitches — seeing just about everything Franklin had to offer in the process — before ripping a liner in front of left fielder Ryan Ludwick.

“He made a pretty good pitch,” Zimmerman said. “It was down, and I hit it off the end of the bat, and I placed it in the right place.”

Zimmerman has enjoyed plenty similar moments in recent weeks. After struggling along with much of the Nationals‘ offense in the first half, Zimmerman is hitting .354 (46-for-130) since June 30.

“You could see that once he fell behind he wasn’t trying to hit a home run or anything,” Acta said. “He was just trying to make contact just to get a base hit and just to continue to battle Franklin. It was just a great at-bat. … He’s locked in right now.”

So is Dmitri Young, who followed Zimmerman’s go-ahead hit with a two-run double into the gap. That left it to closer Chad Cordero to collect his 23rd save with a perfect ninth capped by Austin Kearns’ diving catch of a Scott Rolen line drive to right.

Despite the victory, Washington remains a half-game behind Florida for fourth in the National League East. The Nationals haven’t escaped the outright cellar since the third week of the season but are a solid 42-35 since a rough 9-25 start.

“We’re starting to look now,” Acta said of the standings. “It would be a boost for these guys to get out of last place and jump over somebody.”

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa again placed his pitcher in the eighth spot in the order, a ploy he revisited Saturday for the first time since 1998. The strategy isn’t far-fetched; a position player in the No. 9 hole usually creates a better chance for men to be on base when a feared No. 3 hitter (in the Cardinals’ case yesterday, Albert Pujols) comes to the plate after his first at-bat than does a pitcher.

Of course, La Russa probably didn’t envision Adam Wainwright, his starter yesterday, justifying the decision from the other end. The right-hander homered in the fourth off Matt Chico, helping St. Louis erase an early 3-1 deficit.

La Russa didn’t see much after that from the dugout after tangling twice with first base umpire Mark Wegner. La Russa was perturbed in the fourth when Wegner called Zimmerman safe on an infield hit and for good reason; replays showed Zimmerman was out.

In the fifth, Wegner ruled Ludwick swung on a 2-2 pitch, much to Ludwick’s astonishment. La Russa took only two steps out of the dugout before he was ejected, though he lingered for some time while ranting at Wegner.

The Cardinals soon tied it, but they did little to decipher Washington’s bullpen. Four relievers combined to pitch four scoreless innings, and the only threat was doused when southpaw Ray King induced a sharp double-play grounder back to the mound on his first and only pitch to escape the eighth.

“I’m not going to say I caught it — it went in my glove,” King said. “We turned that two, and it got us back to the dugout, and Zimmerman is Zimmerman. To go 6-0 on a homestand, no matter who you play, is a pretty good.”