- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

NEW YORK — In an otherwise forgettable season, they have been the two best reasons to care. The Washington Nationals won’t remember 2006 for any lofty team accomplishments, but surely they will remember the remarkable individual performances by Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman.

All year the Nationals and their fans could count on the dynamic left fielder and the rookie third baseman to provide nightly thrills. Whether it was Soriano’s pursuit of the exclusive 40-40 club or Zimmerman’s quest for the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award, these two have made this sub-par season worth watching.

So maybe it was fitting that both players reached major milestones during last night’s 3-2 win over the New York Mets. Soriano became the first member of the 40-40-40 club (40 homers, 40 stolen bases, 40 doubles), and Zimmerman drove in the 100th run of his rookie season, helping lead Washington to victory over the newly crowned National League East champions before 42,788 at Shea Stadium.

“That’s kind of what’s kept us all on our toes all year long and given us a lot of thrills and enjoyment,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Watching those guys produce and come through in tough situations, making things happen for this ballclub … it’s been a joy to watch them play.”

Soriano and Zimmerman’s heroics came on a night when the Nationals got quality performances from a number of others. Veteran right-hander Pedro Astacio (5-5) allowed two runs over 61/3 innings to win back-to-back starts for the first time all year. Saul Rivera and Jon Rauch each tossed an inning of scoreless relief. And closer Chad Cordero made it through the ninth unscathed to earn his 28th save and Washington’s ninth straight win in one-run games.

“It’s the starting pitching, and the defense,” Robinson said. “And then the bullpen is able to operate the way they’re supposed to operate late in ballgames. … That’s the combination we’ve been looking for all year long.”

Given the Nationals’ 67-86 record, a full 25 games behind last night’s opponent, the individual accomplishments in this one might have superseded the team accomplishments.

Soriano’s feat certainly was notable, because no one in baseball history had ever done this before. Not Jose Canseco, not Barry Bonds and not Alex Rodriguez, the three charter members of the 40-40 club. None also had 40 doubles.

So when Soriano led off the fifth with a hard shot down the left-field line and coasted into second base with his 40th two-bagger, it was reason to celebrate. The Nationals saved the ball and presented it to Soriano to commemorate his brilliant season.

“I think I have been blessed by God, because there’s not many people who could do that,” Soriano said. “So I’m very happy and very proud of myself. I never thought I was going to put up these numbers when the season started.”

Zimmerman’s milestone moment came earlier, in a productive third inning. Soriano got things started by being plunked in the backside by Mets starter Orlando Hernandez, stealing second and taking third on catcher Mike DiFelice’s throwing error and then scoring on Felipe Lopez’s single to right.

Lopez followed by swiping second himself, his 40th steal, to bring Zimmerman up in a run-scoring situation. The rookie promptly fisted an inside pitch from Hernandez through the right side of the infield and watched as Lopez came all the way around to score. First-base coach Davey Lopes asked for the ball and tossed it toward the Nationals’ dugout, where Robinson scooped it up in his cap and subsequently presented it to the 21-year-old.

“He’s gone beyond any of our expectations, I’m sure,” the manager said. “I don’t think anybody could sit down and say they expected him to be the hitter he was this year.”

Said Zimmerman: “I’m pretty lucky to have Sori and now Felipe in front of me. They get on base a lot and turn singles into doubles. It’s a pretty good situation for me to hit behind those guys.”

Austin Kearns’ homer in the sixth gave the Nationals a 3-1 lead and gave Astacio a much appreciated cushion. The veteran right-hander hasn’t strung together many quality starts this season, particularly during a mostly abysmal second half, but he responded last night with one of his best efforts. He allowed just one run on seven hits in the first six innings, and though he served up a 435-foot homer to pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee in the seventh, he still departed with the lead.

“I had two back-to-back real bad starts,” said Astacio, who lowered his ERA to 6.12. “But I try to finish strong.”

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