- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Washington Nationals finally clinched their first series victory of the season last night. What they’ll remember most is the bizarre way it unfolded.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman belted a ninth-inning grand slam off Florida reliever Jorge Julio, sending the Nationals to a 7-3 victory in a game that was twice delayed by rain and didn’t end until 1:42 a.m. Sunday.

It also marked the first time Washington (11-25) scored six runs in consecutive games all season

“We’re kind if turning a corner,” said Zimmerman, who hit only his second home run (both grand slams against the Marlins) this year and was mobbed by teammates as he crossed the plate. “We’re starting to get big hits and we’re starting to get a little more aggressive, and it’s big for us.”

The Nationals appeared headed for their ninth loss in 10 games when the rain — which earlier created a delay of nearly three hours — grew heavier. When the teams returned 47 minutes later, catcher Brian Schneider fought out of an 0-2 hole to work a walk against Taylor Tankersley, who nursed a 3-2 lead.

Pinch-hitter Dmitri Young, who is battling a sore left Achilles tendon and made his first appearance since Monday, singled and pinch-hitter Jesus Flores followed with another hit. Felipe Lopez then singled to tie it.

Two batters later, Julio entered with two outs and threw his first pitch high and in to Zimmerman. With the count in his favor, Zimmerman figured he’d see a fastball and deposited over the left-center field fence to set off a frenzy among the dozens of fans still remaining.

“We’re playing a lot better right now,” manager Manny Acta said. “Everybody knows we haven’t had a lot of blowout games, so I think the game yesterday and the game today gives us a little bit of hope about our hitting.”

The atmosphere, such as it was, grew more entertaining as the night progressed even as the crowd dwindled. About 1,000 fans remained after a 2 hour, 51 minute delay in the fourth inning, and that group was winnowed to perhaps 100 by the time the second stoppage was completed.

The remnants of an announced crowd of 19,278 contrived their own amusements despite the presence of a persistent shower Marlins star Miguel Cabrera, who entered the night hitting .444 (8-for-18) with three home runs this season against the Nationals, was serenaded with chants of “overrated” before striking out and flying out in his last two plate appearances.

The ninth-inning theatrics gave the fans even greater reason for glee.

“It reminded me of the game we had last year against Philly [Sept. 28] when at the end of the game there was only a couple of people left,” Schneider said. “Fans stuck around, and they got a good show.”

Added Zimmerman: “You could hear everything everyone was saying. You don’t play too many games like that. It’s almost like you’re back in high school playing.”

Before Zimmerman’s blast, the most memorable aspect of the evening was Austin Kearns’ inside-the-park home run, the franchise’s first since moving to Washington. Kearns opened the sixth with a hit to deep center and just clear of Florida’s Reggie Abercrombie. The ball caromed into left, and Kearns quickly scooted around the bases.

That re-energized a group of fans that held out through the lengthy first delay and enthusiastically infiltrated the front rows of the lower bowl when play resumed. Yet after Florida scored two runs off reliever Levale Speigner immediately after play resumed, some probably wondered why they didn’t make a hasty retreat to the parking lot when the rain first started.

Speigner pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief of starter Matt Chico, and Acta said Speigner would take injured right-hander Shawn Hill’s spot in the rotation Wednesday against Atlanta.

The teams played three innings without any interference from the weather, but a burst of rain in the fourth inning sent fans scurrying for cover. Some of the more adventurous spectators slipped back to their seats as the showers momentarily tapered off.

They were sent fleeing again in the top of the fifth, and five minutes after the downpour returned, umpires halted the game.

The night was still far from over. But when it did finally end, Acta was satisfied with his first series victory as the club’s manager.

“It was a long day, but at the end it was worthwhile,” Acta said.

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