- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

For more than a year now, Frank Robinson has refrained from placing any expectations on Ryan Zimmerman. So many others have heaped praise on the Washington Nationals’ 21-year-old third baseman and compared him to various Hall of Famers. The 70-year-old manager just wants to let him play.

There are times, though, when Robinson can’t help but expect the spectacular from Zimmerman. So when he stepped to the plate with two on and two out in the ninth yesterday, the Nationals trailing the Florida Marlins by a run, Robinson allowed himself to ponder the possibility of a game-winning home run.

“You can sit in the dugout and dream,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. And sometimes it comes true.”

It’s coming true with a lot more regularity for both the Nationals and Zimmerman these days. When the rookie clubbed Joe Borowski’s 2-2 slider into the left-field bullpen at RFK Stadium, it gave Washington a stunning 6-4 victory. It also gave this club yet another walk-off homer to add to its growing collection.

Three of the Nationals’ last five home victories have come in such fashion. Zimmerman did it to the New York Yankees on June 18. Nick Johnson did it to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 10th inning Saturday night. And now Zimmerman did it again, giving his team its fourth-straight win and his fast-growing legacy another chapter.

“You know, the things he’s doing, the way he plays the game and the way he handles himself, it’s priceless,” teammate Robert Fick said of the organization’s top draft pick in 2005. “He is special. I don’t want to blow him up too much, he might stop working. But everything he’s doing is solid.”

Zimmerman hasn’t just been solid. He’s been spectacular lately, coming through with late-game heroics at a steady rate. He had never had a game-winning hit in his baseball life before the win against the Yankees. Now he’s hit two walk-off homers in 16 days. Pretty soon, he’s going to have his celebratory trot around the bases down.

“I guess,” he said. “I just watch other people on TV do it.”

There were only minor differences between this walk-off and the last one. Against the Yankees, Zimmerman tagged a first-pitch fastball from Chien-Ming Wang into the bullpen, giving Washington a 3-2 win. This time, he came to the plate with two outs, runners on first and second, and his team looking like it was about to blow yet another golden opportunity.

When the inning began, Washington trailed 4-3 and was still reeling from a couple of botched moments. Jon Rauch had surrendered the game-tying homer to Hanley Ramirez in the seventh, then Jose Vidro allowed the leading run to score in the eighth when his attempted double-play turn short-hopped first baseman Nick Johnson and scooted away for his second error of the day. Miguel Cabrera came around to score, sliding in just as catcher Brian Schneider dropped Johnson’s throw — a bizarre play that the Nationals nearly overcame in the bottom of the inning.

Washington loaded the bases with one out in the eighth and would have tied the game had Johnson’s double to the right-center gap not bounced over the wall, forcing Zimmerman to hold up at third. The rally fizzled from there. After Jose Guillen was intentionally walked, Borowski got Royce Clayton to pop out and Marlon Byrd to ground out.

“You can’t sit here and feel real good about the overall game the way it was played,” Robinson said. “You can’t continue to do those things and expect to win ballgames.”

Somehow, the Nationals did win in the ninth. With one out, Fick cued a single just over the shortstop’s head. Moments later, Alfonso Soriano dropped a blooper between center fielder Reggie Abercrombie and second baseman Dan Uggla. Vidro then flied out to left, setting the stage for Zimmerman.

Borowski fell behind in the count but caught Zimmerman looking at a slider for strike two. The rookie was upset at himself for not hitting that pitch, but with the count now 2-2, he was ready in case Borowski decided to try it again.

He did, and the result was a long fly ball to left that had the crowd of 23,118 holding its collective breath until it landed beyond the fence.

“I didn’t know,” said Zimmerman, who didn’t pump his fist until after he rounded first. “I knew I hit it pretty good, but I really didn’t know.”

Said Borowski: “It wasn’t an awful pitch, but it caught enough of the plate for him to just flick it.”

By the time Zimmerman came around third, a sea of red-clad teammates were waiting for him at the plate. He flipped his helmet into the air and leaped into the throng. He was serenaded all the way back to the dugout, then coerced into another curtain call.

“This guy’s a very special individual. You separate him from the average,” Robinson said. “And you know, he’s still learning. And that’s what’s scary about it. He’s still learning. He’s going to be good one of these days, not too far away. And I mean good. He’s going to be an outstanding player for a lot of years.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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