Thursday, July 5, 2007

As Dmitri Young prepared to step toward the plate with the bases loaded in the fifth inning yesterday at RFK Stadium, Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta turned to his cleanup hitter with some last-minute advice.

“Just lift the ball,” Acta said. “Just get a sac fly and drive one in.”

When Young returned to the dugout a few moments later, with fans bouncing up and down following the grand slam that keyed the Nationals’ 6-0 win over the Chicago Cubs, he caught his manager’s eye and offered his response.

“I drove them all in,” Young said.

It was that kind of Independence Day in the District, where the home team could do no wrong. Young’s sixth career grand slam was the mere topping of an entertaining Nationals victory played before a mammoth crowd of 39,207 that included a walk-up of 6,680.

Ryan Zimmerman provided the early fireworks with a solo homer in the first, snapping a 13-game RBI drought and the Nationals’ prolonged offensive funk.

The rest was all up to Matt Chico, the rookie left-hander who dazzled the Cubs with his best pitching performance to date: seven shutout innings that included only four hits and no walks.

Washington certainly picked the right day to break out of a team-wide slump that had extended more than a week. Having lost seven of their last eight coming in, the Nationals (34-50) put together a complete effort, played their best game in some time and did it all in front of the second-largest crowd of the season.

“It was important for me because of the crowd,” Acta said. “These people have stood behind us, win or lose, the whole season. I know it’s a holiday and the Cubs are in town and all that, but it’s always good when we can win in front of them because they do deserve some of this.”

No one in uniform received more support from the crowd than Young, Washington’s veteran first baseman and All-Star representative who has been baseball’s hottest hitter for nearly two months. Yesterday, he found himself in the most fortuitous of situations when Chicago manager Lou Piniella intentionally walked Zimmerman to load the bases for him.

The Nationals led 2-0 at the time, and with runners on second and third and Zimmerman (who was already 2-for-2 with his homer) at the plate, Piniella wasted no time instructing left-hander Rich Hill to throw four straight balls.

Zimmerman, who before yesterday hadn’t driven in a run since June 18, agreed with the strategy.

“It sets up the double play,” he said. “I had hit the ball well the first couple times. It’s the right play.”

Young, who is hitting a major league-best .413 since May 17, couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“I was wanting them to do that,” he said with a wide grin across his face.

He must have known what he was talking about. Hill left a 1-2 curveball over the plate, and Young belted it into the left-field bullpen for the grand slam that turned this game into a rout.

The crowd roared as Young circled the bases, received high-fives from his teammates upon crossing the plate and got a big hug from hitting coach Lenny Harris upon returning to the dugout. The roar continued as Austin Kearns stepped into the box and might have prompted Young to doff his cap for a curtain call had Kearns not flied out on the next pitch.

“It didn’t cross my mind,” Young said of the potential curtain call. “I mean, if they would have kept at it, someone would have thrown me out to the field. It would have probably been about six or seven guys throwing my big butt out there.”

As he has done throughout the first half of his comeback season, Young led yesterday by example and energized his teammates to victory right when they looked on the verge of dismay following an offensive drought in which they hadn’t scored more than four runs in any of their last 13 games.

Such is the 33-year-old’s role on this club.

“I guess that is part of being one of the leaders on the team,” he said. “To help boost morale.”

Young has done so off the field with his ever-present smile and willingness to talk with anyone who needs a minute, but his contributions on the field shouldn’t be ignored, either.

On a young ballclub that has experienced so many highs and lows over the last three months, one man has consistently carried his teammates. And on Independence Day, the Nationals were lucky to have Young on their side.

“It’s been quite a trip,” Zimmerman said. “Just to watch him hit, I’ve never seen anything like it for this long. You get guys that go two weeks or 20 to 25 games. He’s been doing it for a month and a half now. It’s just amazing. It’s fun to watch. I’m glad I have a good seat for it.”

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