- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

Ryan Zimmerman had never done this before. Not in Little League, not in high school, not at the University of Virginia. So the 21-year-old third baseman wasn’t sure how to react when he hit the first pitch he saw from Chien-Ming Wang for a ninth-inning walk-off home run yesterday afternoon.

First came the fist pump. Then a jubilant trot around the bases. After rounding third, he tossed his batting helmet into the air. And when he reached the mob standing around the plate, Zimmerman leaped into their waiting arms and disappeared into a sea of red jerseys.

Zimmerman’s homer gave the Washington Nationals a 3-2 win over the New York Yankees, the largest baseball crowd in RFK Stadium history bounced up and down in celebration and the rookie from Virginia Beach had only one thing on his mind.

“Just make sure I touch home plate,” he said. “That’s all.”

Zimmerman did, and that’s when the most dramatic win in the Nationals’ brief history became official.

Dare anyone to come up with something better than a walk-off, two-run homer against the Yankees in front of a sellout crowd of 45,157 a day after the biggest comeback in team history.

“It was too good to be true,” said Robert Fick, who was standing in the on-deck circle as the scene played out.

This was no fantasy, though. Zimmerman’s blast was the final touch on a thrilling weekend of interleague baseball that had already seen the Yankees come from behind in the ninth to win Friday night and the Nationals rally from seven runs down to win Saturday.

The deficit wasn’t as steep yesterday, but the comeback was no less impressive. For eight innings, Washington’s hitters had been held at bay by Wang, whose only previous mistake had been an RBI single to Brendan Harris in the fifth.

The Yankees didn’t have much more success against the Nationals’ pitching staff, but managed to push a pair of runs across on Jorge Posada’s sixth-inning sacrifice fly off starter Mike O’Connor and Alex Rodriguez’s two-out double off reliever Gary Majewski in the eighth.

The Rodriguez hit — a rope to left-center that scored Melky Cabrera from first — set Majewski up to be the goat for the second time in three days. The Nationals’ top setup man blew Friday night’s lead, and now he was the pitcher of record again.

So as the bottom of the ninth began, a dejected Majewski decided he couldn’t watch anymore. He trudged back up the tunnel to the Washington clubhouse, plopped himself down on a sofa and watched the rest with O’Connor, Livan Hernandez and Ryan Drese.

But in the Nationals dugout, there still was hope. They had nearly scored the tying run in the eighth when Jose Vidro drilled a liner to left-center, only to be robbed of extra bases by Cabrera’s lunging catch.

“They came in showing a little confidence,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “We’ve still got a chance here. … Their heads were up. The attitude was positive. I looked down the bench, and that’s the way I felt.”

Then, the Nationals found a bit of good fortune and timing. Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of his generation, was unavailable after throwing 21/3 innings the previous two days. Inside the batting tunnel just behind the Nationals’ dugout, Marlon Anderson and others debated who might pitch the ninth for the Yankees.

“They may try to keep [Wang] in,” Anderson told his teammates.

They did. With his starter at 96 pitches, New York manager Joe Torre sent him back out for another inning.

The Nationals’ first hitter, Jose Guillen, grounded out. Then came Anderson, pinch-hitting for Majewski. Wang, who had been relying on off-speed pitches most of the day, decided to throw three straight fastballs. Anderson pulled the third one into right field for a single.

“We’ve got a shot,” Robinson said. “That’s what you’re looking for. If you can just get one man on, you’ve got a shot to win.”

Zimmerman then walked to the plate, still remembering how he grounded out on Wang’s fastball two innings before.

“I figured I was going to look for that same pitch first pitch,” he said. “And if he threw it, try to do some damage with it.”

Wang threw the same pitch. This time, though, he left it out over the plate, right in Zimmerman’s wheelhouse. The ball soared toward left field, hung in the air for a moment and then landed in the Yankees bullpen, setting off a mad celebration.

As Zimmerman rounded the bases and his teammates began gathering at the plate, Majewski bolted back from the clubhouse, his potential loss just transformed into a win.

“I hauled butt back down there,” he said.

Eventually, all of the Nationals made their way back underneath the dugout, at least until Zimmerman was coerced back out for a curtain call. Inside the clubhouse, smiles abounded as this seesaw team packed its bags and prepared to leave for Boston and the start of a nine-game road trip with spirits soaring.

“It’s very satisfying, and it’s huge,” Robinson said. “To go out on the road after two wins like we accomplished the last two ballgames, especially the way we won them, I don’t know if we need the plane to go to Boston. We could fly over there without a jet.”

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