The Washington Times - April 20, 2009, 11:23AM

Whew, what a busy Sunday at the ballpark that turned out to be. Not for me, of course, I was off. But when Ben called me after the game and told me everything that was going on, I almost thought it was a joke.

It wasn’t, of course, so there’s plenty to re-visit this morning, plus some other big things to preview heading into tonight’s game against the Braves…


We begin with the biggest news: Ryan Zimmerman has agreed to a long-term extension with the Nats. It’s believed to be for five years and $45 million, but we’ll get exact contract details later this afternoon. I suppose you could look at this and say: What’s the big deal? Zimmerman couldn’t have become a free agent until after the 2011 season, so what was the rush? That’s a fair point. But I believe this move has more to do with PR than anything. The Nats need to make some good news, something that get an increasingly irate fan base back on board. Locking up the face of your franchise through at least 2013 does just that. Aside from calls to sign Adam Dunn, this was the No. 1 request of fans last winter. It’s a show of good faith from the Lerner family that they’re willing to lock up good players for a long time.

The Zimmerman press conference will take place today at 4 p.m. at Nationals Park. I would assume MASN will be showing at least part of it, whether live or later on during the pregame show at 6:30 p.m. Speaking of which … I’ll be on the pregame show tonight for the Times’ regular “Hot Corner” segment. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ben and I make roughly four appearances per week to discuss various news and notes about the Nats. It’s worth tuning in — broadcasting the show live from the ballpark this season has been a real nice touch.

I would imagine one of the many topics that will be discussed on tonight’s show will be the young man who is making his big-league debut for the Nats: Jordan Zimmermann. The 22-year-old right-hander had his contract purchased from Class AAA Syracuse yesterday, and his arrival marks a significant moment for this franchise. Zimmermann is only the second player drafted by the Nationals since the Lerner family gained ownership of the club to reach the majors. And since the first, Ross Detwiler, made only one token bullpen appearance in 2007, this really is a major development for an organization that has been touting its plan to rebuild through scouting and player development all along. Now we have a tangible result of all that.

For those who don’t remember the history, Zimmermann was a second-round pick in the 2007 draft, a pick that actually came to the Nats as compensation for losing Alfonso Soriano to free agency (they also got another pick that turned into fellow pitcher Josh Smoker). For all those who complained at the time that the Nats should have traded Soriano, here is our first chance to see whether the club’s decision to let him become a free agent instead was a wise one.

Zimmermann’s arrival, of course, meant someone else had to lose their job. And the victim there was catcher Josh Bard, who was designated for assignment after yesterday’s game. We knew all along the Nats wouldn’t carry three catchers forever. Bard came in with a reputation as a good hitter who could hold his own behind the plate. But he was just 3-for-15 through the season’s first two weeks and didn’t look especially comfortable catching (he committed two passed balls in one game). So Wil Nieves, who doesn’t hit much but is loved by the pitching and coaching staffs for his game-calling ability, stays as the backup catcher.

Last, but certainly not least, is yesterday’s game. I thought Saturday’s was as gut-wrenching as they come, but the Nats outdid themselves in the series finale against the Marlins. Up a run in the eighth? Blown lead. Handed a gift run in the bottom of the inning? Gave four runs back and lost 7-4.

Manny Acta’s postgame comments were as strong as I’ve heard from him in his three years as manager. And they were warranted. This recent performance by the Nats’ bullpen has been embarrasing. It’s one thing to get hit around a little. It’s quite another to just hand a game to the opposition, which is what Saul Rivera did in the ninth yesterday. How can you walk Emilio Bonifacio to lead off the inning? This is a guy who had — since his brilliant start the season — fallen into an 0-for-14 slump. He wasn’t going to beat the Nats with his bat. But to just give him first base on a free pass, considering the havoc he causes on the bases, was abominable. And predictably, it all went downhill from there.

Rivera, Steven Shell and Wil Ledezma were all shipped out, with Rivera optioned to Syracuse and Shell and Ledezma designated for assignment (they must pass waivers before being sent down). Three right-handers will take their places in the bullpen beginning tonight: Jason Bergmann, Garrett Mock and Kip Wells. Are those guys the answer to all that ails the Nats? We’ll see, though there’s reason to be skeptical about that. It’s very difficult to remake a bullpen during the season, unless you’re willing to trade away top offensive players or top prospects. For better or worse, the Nats are going to have to go with what they have in the system.

Of course, you never know. Jordan Zimmermann could throw a complete-game shutout tonight and Acta will never have to call upon his bullpen.