- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO | By the time Ryan Zimmerman woke up Monday morning, his name already was appearing on ESPN’s ticker as one of “The Lead” items, alongside previews of the evening’s NBA and Stanley Cup playoff matchups.

By the time Zimmerman arrived at AT&T Park in the afternoon, he already had requests for two television interviews, one on a D.C.-area cable station and another on the national MLB Network.

And by the time Zimmerman stepped to the plate in the first to face Randy Johnson on Monday night, he had been approached by a number of people asking him about the majors’ longest hitting streak in two years.

Through it all, the Washington Nationals third baseman shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said all he could about this experience that has been going on for a month now.

“Might as well keep it going,” he said.

Then he went out and did just that. And then some.

With a first-inning single to center field off Johnson - a future Hall of Famer whom he had never faced before - Zimmerman extended his hitting streak to 29 games. By nights end, he had also homered twice and driven in four runs en route to a 4-for-5 performance that raised his batting average to a gaudy .363.

“I was just trying to do the same stuff I’ve been doing all season,” he said in his usual aw-shucks manner. “I’ve been keeping my routine before the game. I’m just having good at-bats, swinging at my pitches and not theirs. I just hope to keep going.”

Among the annals of great baseball hitting streaks, it doesn’t yet rank alongside Joe DiMaggio, Pete Rose or Wee Willie Keeler. But it is starting to grab some attention from a national audience that is perhaps finally coming to appreciate this 24-year-old star-in-waiting.

If nothing else, it has brought some positive attention to a Nationals organization that too often has been the butt of jokes on the national stage, known more for scandals, misspelled jerseys and losing games.

“It’s helping put him on the map and our organization in a positive note,” manager Manny Acta said before the game. “Hopefully he can continue to do it. But most important, that he does it while he continues to help us win ballgames.”

One of the hallmarks of Zimmerman’s streak has been his ability to produce in important situations, most notably his eighth-inning home run Saturday night in Phoenix that proved the difference in Washington’s 2-1 victory against Arizona.

Sometime in the past week, as the streak surpassed the 20-game mark and really became noteworthy, Zimmerman’s teammates began taking keen notice and marveling each night he extended the run.

“It’s impressive to keep getting hits,” outfielder Adam Dunn said. “And not just one. It seems like it’s two or three every single game. It’s one of the more amazing things I’ve been around in this game.”

Added fellow outfielder Josh Willingham: “Everybody knows how hard it is to hit at this level. To do it day in and day out like he’s been doing and getting hits this many days in a row is remarkable. … I hope he gets 100.”

Zimmerman’s first hit Monday came on a 1-2 fastball from Johnson, just moments after the “Big Unit” made his counterpart look silly with a trademark slider down and in.

“He’s a big man,” he said. “There’s legs and arms and everything coming at you. His slider is pretty good, like it looks on TV. … He’s tough. I can see why he’s so good.”

Mind you, Zimmerman said this after collecting two hits off Johnson, including a sixth-inning homer. And that was just the warmup act to a 4-for-5 night that featured a single off Justin Miller in the eighth and a three-run, opposite-field homer off Osiris Matos in the ninth.

“He’s been the same today as he was 27, 28 days ago,” Acta said. “His approach is to come over here and play hard, try to help us win the ballgame.”

Zimmerman’s line-drive single in the first inning put him a little more than halfway to DiMaggio’s run of 56 games, a record few around baseball believe will ever be broken. Zimmerman, who also homered off Johnson to lead off the sixth, has said his stretch has made him appreciate just how incredible DiMaggio’s streak in 1941 was.

Given all that, he has made a conscious effort not to get too excited about his streak, which began in innocuous fashion with a sixth-inning double April 8 at Florida and kept building steam from there.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think about it,” he said. “I’m having fun with it. I enjoy playing. I enjoy getting hits every day. I think everyone enjoys getting hits every day. But for me to expect myself to do anything monumental or anything like that I think is the wrong mindset. I just keep it simple and go out there.”

Not an overly superstitious type, Zimmerman has done a couple of things in an attempt not to jinx himself, wearing the same batting gloves and cleats throughout the streak. The gloves are beginning to wear down, which could create a problem if this thing lasts much longer.

The Nationals - and Zimmerman - would love to be faced with that dilemma. They also gladly would accept the kind of daily attention that would come with a really prolonged streak, one that surpasses Moises Alou’s 30-game run in 2007 (the longest run in the game before this one) and Heinie Manush’s 33-game run in 1933 (the longest by a D.C.-based player).

If it gets to that point, Zimmerman’s calm demeanor and nonchalant attitude could pay off.

“It doesn’t seem to be taking a toll on him,” Acta said. “That’s what’s impressed me the most. He’s taking it like every day is the same to him. … I think the guys that take that approach to it have a better chance to last longer than the other guys.”

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