- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

ATLANTA | It’s tough enough gutting through September for a last-place club. It’s even tougher when the regular-season schedule extends into October.

Ryan Zimmerman has seen plenty of his Washington Nationals teammates struggle to sustain a high level of performance during the final weeks of a difficult year. Zimmerman understands the challenge, but he refuses to succumb to it.

“Everyone wants to finish strong. You don’t want to finish scuffling,” he said. “But it’s a tough time of year. You’ve got to stay focused.”

Zimmerman’s focus at the plate and in the field Thursday night allowed the Nationals to snare a 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves. Strong pitching performances by Garrett Mock (six innings of one-run ball) and Tyler Clippard (2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief) paved the way, but Zimmerman’s bat and his glove sealed the deal for Washington’s fourth straight victory.

The All-Star third baseman drove in the Nationals’ first run with a fourth-inning double, scored the go-ahead run following a ninth-inning double and then saved the Braves from tying the score in the bottom of the inning with a diving stop of Omar Infante’s hard grounder.

While the other big sluggers in Washington’s lineup have struggled down the stretch - Josh Willingham is batting .149 since Aug. 26, and Adam Dunn is mired in an 0-for-26 slump that has dropped his average to .266 - Zimmerman is pushing hard through the finish line. He has driven in 11 runs in his past 13 games and has produced eight extra-base hits in that span.

“He’s just a great ballplayer,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “We’re all lucky to have him. He’s just playing really good baseball, and he’s finishing strong. He’s [such] a big strong kid that a 162-game schedule is not going to slow him down.”

Zimmerman’s double in the fourth accounted for the Nationals’ lone run against Atlanta starter Tommy Hanson. With the score tied at 1-1 in the ninth, he roped a leadoff double off Rafael Soriano and scored moments later on Pete Orr’s single to left.

But as he so often does, Zimmerman shined brightest in the field with the game on the line. With the Nationals clinging to a 2-1 lead and with closer Mike MacDougal hampered by lingering tightness in his right leg, Riggleman allowed Clippard to return to the mound for his third inning of relief.

“I’m loving it that Riggs is showing confidence in me,” Clippard said. “I want the ball — for however many innings. I’ll go out there regardless.”

The right-hander nearly finished the game but surrendered a two-out single to Ryan Church that moved the tying run to third base. Enter MacDougal, who promptly surrendered Infante’s sharp grounder to the left side. Plenty of third basemen wouldn’t have been able to keep the ball in the infield, let alone snag it and throw from their knees to second base for the out. For Zimmerman, such plays have become expected.

“Knowing the guy’s there, I don’t think about it much,” Mock said. “If a ball goes anywhere on that side, I basically just lay down flat or duck down and get out of the way and let him do his thing. It’s great having him there.”

Mock took advantage of that strong defense throughout his six innings. The right-hander, who entered with a 3-10 record and a 5.91 ERA, enjoyed his best start in more than a month thanks to three double-play grounders that allowed him to avoid any serious damage.

Mock thus ended his up-and-down season on a positive note, though he’d welcome the opportunity to come back and pitch again.

“It’s a long season, but I feel like I’m making some steps in the right direction,” he said. “I really wish I had a couple more.”

Notes - The Nationals decided to let Ross Detwiler start Saturday, citing his strong arm and a desire to put their best option on the mound for a game that had playoff implications until the Braves were eliminated from the wild-card race Thursday.

Detwiler has thrown a career-high 147 1/3 innings between the minors and majors, but team officials don’t believe one more outing will have an adverse effect. The 23-year-old has made a strong impression since returning from Class AAA, posting a 2.41 ERA in four appearances.

“It’s been really interesting and really exciting to see since he’s come back from the minor leagues [last] month, how his composure has improved, his command has improved,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Just the whole package of what he brings on the mound has been good.” …

Because of a power outage to its on-site operations, MASN2 was forced to pick up the Braves’ SportSouth video feed. Bob Carpenter and Rob Dibble still were able to announce over the Braves’ feed.

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