- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2011

For a Nationals team that placed a heavy emphasis on moving on to “Phase Two” of their rebuilding plan this offseason – and getting the right veterans to complement their growing stable of youthful talent – there’s little doubt they envisioned ever running out a starting lineup where all but one player was over the age of 30.

And even then, it was the oldest guy on the field in 39-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez displaying, as reliever Tyler Clippard put it, “his 20-year-old arm,” to catch pinch-runner Darren Ford trying to steal second with no outs in the eighth inning, who made the decisive play in the Nationals 5-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday afternoon.

“That’s like if I hit 4-for-4,” said Rodriguez, who’s now thrown out two of the fastest players in the major leagues in less than a week after gunning down Jose Reyes on Thursday night. “Throwing that guy out, late in the game like that, that’s what you call a game-saving play right there.”

Rodriguez then went one step further to ensure the Nationals of no worse than a split with the reigning World Series champions when he brought home Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond with a two-run single in the bottom of the inning to give the Nationals a little breathing room in their 13th victory of the season.

“That was a great game that Pudge played today,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “That was unbelievable. That guy, Ford, is about as fast as it gets in the league and that was a changeup he threw him out on. That was just a great pitch to get a swing and a miss and just a tremendous throw by Pudge.”

While the Nationals have placed much of their emphasis as an organization on the future – and built much of that future on their youth – their veterans contributed all five RBI on Sunday with Alex Cora driving in the Nationals’ first run with a double in the second inning, Rick Ankiel scoring their second on a wild pitch and Jerry Hairston Jr. bringing home the game-winner in the fourth.

As they tagged Matt Cain for three runs off seven hits and three walks, the average age of their run-producers on Sunday was 35.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Cora said. “We’re here to contribute. Of course there’s a learning period and all that leadership stuff that people talk about… but we feel capable that we can contribute. We’re not Ryan Zimmerman, but we’ve been playing for a while and we know how to win so that’s the most important thing.”

Perhaps no one on the team knows that better than Rodriguez, who not only helped 25-year-old Jordan Zimmermann through six relatively sharp innings where he threw 107 pitches – the most he’s tossed since 2009 Tommy John surgery – but continues to provide an unparalleled energy each time his name is in the lineup, even as those instances decrease as the starting catcher’s job is slowly turned over to Wilson Ramos.

“He’s a very big part of this team,” said right fielder Jayson Werth who went 3-for-4 to raise his average to .243. “It’s fun to watch him play when he comes to life. It reminds me of the young Pudge Rodriguez, when I used to watch him play back in the day. He’s still got a lot to offer. He’s an icon of the game and it’s privilege to play with him.”

For a Nationals team that scored just 98 runs in the first month of the season – the sixth-lowest mark in the major leagues – they’ll take offense from any place they can get it. Sunday that place was several players who have acquiesced to taking a lesser role on this team than they have in the past or with different clubs.

As they begin to navigate one of their toughest stretches of the season with a 10-game road trip against three divisional foes starting Tuesday and their All-Star third baseman out until at least mid-June, they’ll need those veterans and bench players to continue to thrive if they want to stay afloat by Zimmerman’s return.

“I’m a team player and I’m a winner,” Rodriguez said when asked if it’s been tough to transition from being an everyday player. “I’m here to win and that’s what I’m thinking about. Our group is very solid, very close and that’s our mentality here.

“We’re a team. We are one group, one team and when the regular players don’t play, we play and it’s just about a win. That’s the most important thing and that’s the focus that we have.”