- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

How bad have the Washington Nationals been at pulling out late victories this season? Take your pick of some telling stats.

Entering Friday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Nationals were 0-8 when tied after seven innings. They were 0-5 when tied after eight innings. And when the game went into extra innings? They were an abysmal 0-8.

Plain and simple, the Nationals have not been able to win close ballgames. Which made Friday’s 2-1, 11-inning triumph - capped by Adam Dunn’s bases-loaded single - perhaps the most unexpected of Washington’s 19 triumphs this year.

Despite trying their best to squander every opportunity presented to them, the Nationals somehow managed to go home with smiles on their faces. And thanks to back-to-back wins at Yankee Stadium, these guys are suddenly riding a three-game winning streak.

“We needed to do something like this,” said manager Manny Acta, whose job looks more secure by the day. “Hopefully, we can build on it.”

Friday night’s victory came at the end of tight pitchers’ duel in which both teams blew golden opportunities to take the lead. Washington, though, finally found a way to push the winning run across in the 11th despite getting only one ball out of the infield.

Cristian Guzman got things started with a sharp line drive off reliever Jason Frasor’s glove. Nick Johnson then drew a walk, completing a perfect night in which he reached base all six times he came to the plate, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with his own four-pitch free pass to set the stage for Dunn.

After swinging and missing at two straight offerings from Frasor, Dunn at last made contact on the 0-2 pitch. He lined a sharp base hit over first base. Guzman raced home, and the Washington dugout spilled out to mob Dunn as he reached first base after completing the club’s first walk-off win of the season.

“I was trying to get something I could hit in the air, but the first two pitches he just blew it by me,” the cleanup man said. “I don’t really have a two-strike swing, but I told myself to have a more level swing and just try to put the ball in play and use my blazing speed to beat it out.”

Washington’s winning rally wouldn’t have been possible without stellar work from a relief corps that has resurrected itself in recent weeks. Kip Wells, Julian Tavarez, Ron Villone, Joel Hanrahan, Joe Beimel and Jesus Colome combined to toss 5 1/3 innings of two-hit ball and keep the score tied.

“They’ve been solid for the last three weeks at least,” Acta said. “And tonight that was huge. Every one of them did a very good job.”

By the time the game ended, Jordan Zimmermann’s solid outing was something of an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be forgotten, because it continued an upward trend for the rookie right-hander.

Though Zimmermann has posted strong numbers in the past month - he’s got a 3.45 ERA in his five most recent starts - he has been plagued by high pitch counts and an inability to put batters away. That combination explains why he has pitched beyond the sixth inning only once this season and has been searching for career win No. 3 since April 26.

In one respect, Zimmermann’s performance Friday was exceptional. He allowed only one run on five hits and certainly pitched well enough to win. But he needed an excess of pitches - 106 - just to get through 5 2/3 innings, in part because he couldn’t finish off Toronto’s batters.

The Blue Jays still hadn’t pushed anyone across the plate, but with two outs in the sixth Zimmermann walked No. 7 hitter Lyle Overbay and then served up an RBI single to No. 8 hitter Rod Barajas despite having him down 0-2 in the count at one point.

“They were fouling a lot of pitches off, then I’d throw a couple of balls,” Zimmermann said. “I was going deep in counts. I can’t be doing that. I just tried to keep the team in the game most of the night.”

That mistake tied the score at 1-1 and cost Zimmermann his shot at a win, though a little run support from his teammates would have helped.

The Nationals have been searching for clutch hits for almost a month now, and they again couldn’t find them Friday. Despite putting at least one man on base each of the first nine innings, they managed to score only once during that span: of all things, on Zimmermann’s fourth-inning, bases-loaded fielder’s choice.

Opportunities abounded, none better than the one that presented itself in the seventh, when Washington had runners on second and third with nobody out and the heart of the order stepping to the plate in Zimmerman, Dunn, Elijah Dukes and Josh Bard.

Somehow, none of the four managed to put the ball in play. Zimmerman struck out looking at a 3-2 breaking ball from Dirk Hayhurst. Dunn was intentionally walked to load the bases. Dukes then was caught looking at a 2-2 breaking ball from Fairfax native and George Mason alum Shawn Camp. Bard completed the painful inning by taking three straight balls from Camp to bring the crowd of 20,860 to its feet, only to subsequently take three straight strikes to end the inning and keep this game undecided a while longer.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen it before: three guys strike out with the bases loaded looking,” Acta said. “I’m sure that it has happened in the game before, but I haven’t seen it. We should be a little more aggressive in that type of situation and not let the umpire dictate your at-bat.”

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