- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

The ending had a familiar refrain: Ryan Zimmerman driving in the game-winning run and getting mobbed by his teammates.

But the path the Washington Nationals took en route to an 8-7, 11-inning victory over the Florida Marlins yesterday was anything but familiar.

The Nationals’ fifth win in six games was made possible not only by Zimmerman’s two-out single off Jason Vargas (his third game-winning hit in 19 days) but by 91/3 brilliant innings of shutout ball from a bullpen that had imploded the night before.

“They did an exceptional job today,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They won the ballgame for us, really. To come in and shut the other team down for 91/3, that was huge.”

Still feeling the pain of Wednesday night’s 18-9 trouncing — in which five relievers were tagged for 13 runs over eight innings — the Nationals found themselves in an eerily similar situation yesterday at RFK Stadium. Starter Livan Hernandez was handed a 5-0 lead after one inning but gave it all back and then some during a horrific second inning.

By the time Robinson yanked his veteran right-hander, seven Florida batters had crossed the plate — the last two on Mike Jacobs’ homer into the right-field upper deck. For the second time in four starts, Hernandez departed after recording only five outs, matching the shortest outing of his career.

“Everybody has bad days and good days, and I had a bad day,” said Hernandez, whose ERA now stands at 5.94.

“They looked like they knew what was coming,” Robinson said.

So, Washington’s 5-0 lead morphed into a 7-5 deficit, leaving the RFK crowd of 29,053 (portions of which suffered through Wednesday night’s debacle) restless and ornery.

None of them, however, counted on the Nationals’ bullpen coming to the rescue in such stunning fashion, particularly when considering the uninspiring arms Robinson had at his disposal.

It began with Micah Bowie, a 31-year-old, journeyman left-hander, who was called up from Class AAA New Orleans earlier in the day to replace the ineffective Jason Bergmann. Bowie’s career, spanning 13 seasons, four organizations and one major elbow surgery, has been decidedly unremarkable. He arrived at RFK yesterday, bleary-eyed from his early-morning flight from Des Moines, Iowa, the owner of an 8.45 ERA in 33 major league appearances.

So when Bowie proceeded to mow the Marlins down over the next 21/3 innings in his first outing since 2003, the Nationals were equal parts delighted and shocked.

“When you go out there, you want to try to get quick outs,” he said of the situation he was thrust into. “Just try to keep the team in the game.”

Bowie did precisely that. And so did everyone else who followed him out of the Washington bullpen. Jon Rauch turned in two scoreless innings. Gary Majewski added one of his own. Bill Bray kept the Marlins off the board in the eighth and ninth. And Chad Cordero earned overtime pay by making it through the 10th and 11th unscathed while throwing more pitches (42) than anyone else on the staff yesterday.

“The bullpen got stretched to its maximum today,” Robinson said. “Each guy gave me what I needed. … Every inning, every out that bullpen recorded today, we needed every one of them. We couldn’t have gone any place else.”

The great relief work allowed the Nationals to come charging back, though the Marlins aided the cause with shoddy defense and poor pitching. Still trailing 7-5 in the seventh, Washington center fielder Alex Escobar (an in-game replacement for Marlon Anderson) roped a triple to the base of the 410-foot mark. Two batters later, Brian Schneider lofted a routine fly ball to left that looked like an easy sacrifice fly until Florida’s Josh Willingham muffed it for a two-base error.

Rookie reliever Taylor Tankersley then walked three straight batters, including Zimmerman with the bases loaded, to push across the tying run and ultimately send the game into extra innings.

The two sides swapped squandered opportunities until the 11th, when Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez booted Schneider’s leadoff grounder toward the hole. Pinch-hitter Robert Fick sacrificed Schneider to second, allowing Alfonso Soriano to be intentionally walked. Jose Vidro grounded into a fielder’s choice, leaving it all up to Zimmerman with two outs and runners on the corners.

This situation has become familiar for the rookie third baseman, who hit walk-off homers against the New York Yankees on June 18 and against the Marlins on Tuesday. No mammoth blasts were required this time, only a sharp single up the middle on Vargas’ 3-1 fastball that scored Schneider with the winning run.

Zimmerman’s teammates rushed to greet him on the right side of the infield, his latest late-game heroics only adding to his legacy and his sky-high confidence.

“Being in so many of those [clutch situations] is nice because you can get comfortable,” said Zimmerman, who is on pace for 108 RBI. “The first couple of times, you feel a little amped up and maybe do some things you wouldn’t want to do. The more and more you go through it, the more calm you are, and the more composed you are throughout the whole at-bat.”

It has gotten to the point where the Nationals now look at this 21-year-old as one of their most-reliable veterans.

“He’s not a rookie anymore with what he’s doing right now,” Cordero said. “Rookies sometimes crack under that type of pressure, but he just seems to feed off of it.”

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

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