- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

PHILADELPHIA | As one Philadelphia Phillies player after another piled on top of each other in front of second base early Saturday evening, a handful of Washington Nationals players stood perched on the top step of the visitors’ dugout, tucking the scene away as a mental postcard from a place they hope to find in the future.

Ryan Zimmerman did not.

The third baseman had come inches away from tying the game, his hard grounder up the middle snared by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who made a flip from his knees to second that started a game-ending double play. The Nationals’ franchise player didn’t race to escape the mayhem, but he didn’t linger, either.

“We don’t have to have somebody celebrating in front of us to make us want to do it,” Zimmerman said.

However much promise the future holds for the Nationals, the reality in front of them is a season that could end Sunday with Washington owning baseball’s worst record, after the team watched the Phillies clinch the NL East against it for the second consecutive year Saturday.

The way Philadelphia did it, holding off a ninth-inning Nationals rally to win 4-3, was by no magic formula. The middle of their lineup strung together a key inning. Their veteran starter kept the Nationals from coming back. Brad Lidge, the closer who entered the game 40-for-40 in save opportunities, nearly blew his first of the year, but did enough to end the game after Rollins made a superb defensive play.

“Them and the Mets are two pretty good teams, if you look up and down their lineups, look at their bullpens and their rotations,” Zimmerman said. “Look at their payrolls. Everything’s self-explanatory. Besides the Rays, you can’t go out and have eight 25-year-olds out there competing against teams like that. They’re a good team, they have a bunch of talent, and more importantly, they have guys that come through when it counts. That’s why they get paid.”

It’s also why the Phillies won Saturday, backing left-hander John Lannan into a corner despite the rookie’s solid performance.

Lannan handed the Phillies plenty of off-speed pitches early in counts to bait their aggressive hitters who might look for a fastball. But he struggled locating his slider and got hit when he was forced to throw over the plate.

Philadelphia scored two runs off Lannan in the fourth, getting singles from Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to start the inning. Pat Burrell’s fly ball drifted into foul territory in right field, and Utley scored from third after Elijah Dukes caught it. Then Lannan threw a first-pitch change-up just off the outside edge of the plate to Shane Victorino, who drove it to left field for a run-scoring single.

After the Nationals had pulled within one in the fifth, Jayson Werth punched a high fastball into the first rows of the right field seats to stretch Philadelphia’s lead back to two.

“I had that one long inning, and when they got those bloop hits, I kind of got away from using my fastball,” Lannan said. “I just made sure I came back strong. That Jayson Werth home run, I got him twice on that fastball up. The ball kind of tailed away just a little bit for him to get on top of it. It’s the one pitch I could take back.”

It was enough to hurt, especially with Jamie Moyer on the mound for the Phillies. Moyer pulled enough strings to beat the Nationals despite the ever-shrinking gap between his age (45) and the velocity of his fastball (83 mph).

The left-hander won for the third time this season against Washington. He baited the Nationals’ young hitters with an assortment of straight fastballs, change-ups and cutters, all located precisely enough to prevent any of the Nationals’ six hits against him from doing much damage.

The Nationals scored one run in the eighth off Ryan Madson, which was negated when Philadelphia added its own insurance run.

And the Phillies held on, despite Lidge giving up a Roger Bernadina single, walking Ryan Langerhans and surrendering an RBI single to Anderson Hernandez that would have sent Langerhans to third had the pinch hitter not slipped at second base.

Lidge then gave up a hit to Cristian Guzman and bounced his first pitch to Zimmerman. But Rollins came through, setting off a volley of fireworks as the Phillies celebrated in front of second base.

“That’s what, every year, you [strive] to do,” pitcher Collin Balester said. “That was unbelievable, the crowd getting into it and everyone just acting like little kids out there. Seeing it today makes you wish we could start the season over.”

Zimmerman was more interested in results than sentiment.

“They have a good team, they won a good division, and it’s good for them,” Zimmerman said. “But we’re not going to sit out there and watch.”

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