- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

After the 2005 draft, the Washington Nationals were busy touting University of Virginia third baseman Ryan Zimmerman as their prize, and with good reason. The fourth overall pick had “face of the franchise” written all over him - a photogenic, regional attraction with a marketable personality and all-around game to match.

In the fourth round, they got University of Maryland outfielder Justin Maxwell, who in theory could check all the same boxes. Local upbringing. Megawatt smile. Gleaming all-around game.

But while Zimmerman streaked to franchise player status, opening Nationals Park last season with a signature moment - a walk-off home run - Maxwell languished in the minor leagues with injuries, losing ground to Zimmerman and time to get himself into the Nationals’ future.

On Wednesday, the Nationals generated the kind of roar not seen in their home stadium since that night in March 2008. And it happened two batters after Zimmerman struck out.

It was Maxwell’s blockbuster moment, a beaming complement to Zimmerman’s home run in the stadium’s debut. Facing Francisco Rodriguez, the New York Mets’ All-Star closer, Maxwell stroked a walk-off grand slam to give the Nationals a 7-4 victory in their final home game of 2009.

Maxwell - who has played himself into the edges of the 2010 outfield picture with a solid September - battled Rodriguez through a nine-pitch at-bat, fouling off two full-count fastballs from the All-Star, and launched another fastball just over the left-field fence.

“Before the inning started, I knew I was like seventh or whatever up,” Maxwell said. “I was like, ‘All right, we get a couple guys on, I might be able to come out with the bases loaded.’ It worked out kind of storybook.”

It was the first time in the past 150 games the Nationals had won when trailing after eight innings. And though it was too late to redeem another impressive performance from No. 1 starter John Lannan, it stirred just a few rays of hope for next year.

“There’s no way I can explain how good a feeling that is. The fans’ excitement, the players’ excitement speaks for itself,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “We are where we are in the standings. It’s just indicative of what we’ve been doing. … I think that excitement there is what’s in store for the future here.”

As he has all month, Lannan turned in a strong effort in an attempt to win his 10th game. Riding a strong two-seam fastball that consistently touched 90 mph, he kept the Mets quiet save for a pair of runs in a second inning highlighted by Jeff Francoeur’s double, which was reviewed after it spiked off the top of the left-field fence and hit just below the rosebushes sitting on top of the fence.

Lannan allowed three runs, two of them earned, on four hits in seven innings.

“I kind of calmed down after [Francoeur’s double] and told myself they weren’t going to score any more runs,” Lannan said.

Redding allowed his only run on Alberto Gonzalez’s sacrifice fly in the fifth; the starter’s strong effort scuttled any shot of Lannan benefiting from his fourth impressive outing against the Mets this season.

The Nationals’ only real chance to come back against Redding was in the fifth, when they put two runners on base to start the inning. Apart from that, it was just another exercise in futility from an offense that has put them together in stunning succession lately.

That was, until the ninth.

Washington had just five hits before the ninth inning. Adam Dunn was 0-for-4. Only Josh Willingham (who scored the Nationals’ first run after a leadoff single in the fifth) and Zimmerman, who hit his 33rd homer in the eighth, counted among the contributors from the middle of the Nationals’ order.

They loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, which brought Zimmerman to the plate against Rodriguez with a chance to win the game. He struck out on a nasty slider from Rodriguez, but Dunn walked to drive in a run.

That brought up Maxwell, who had replaced Willingham in the eighth. Maxwell delivered the kind of moment fans had expected to see from him earlier. When the ball left the yard, the crowd erupted as Maxwell rounded the bases. He was knocked to the ground at home plate and was repeatedly pummeled by his teammates.

That group, finally, included Zimmerman.

“I think we all know he has a lot of talent,” Zimmerman said. “This is the first year he’s stayed healthy the whole way through. He works hard. It’s nice to see him to do something like that and be able to be up here and show everyone how good he is.”

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