WASHINGTON -- Ryan Zimmerman offered a smile when he heard what his teammates said before his return from abdominal surgery and two months on the disabled list Tuesday night at Nationals Park.
The Nationals entered the day tied for the lowest batting average in the Majors, but they expected Zimmerman to provide a big boost in his return. Zimmerman only said he would maintain his "slow, but steady" approach.
His first three at-bats were slow: two strikeouts and an inning-ending double play. His fourth brought the steady production that defined Zimmerman over his Nationals career: a seventh-inning double that sparked a rally and an 8-6 win over the Cardinals.
"[Cardinals starter Jaime] Garcia made really good pitches on me all night -- he was tough. I just kind of stuck with my plan: Don't try to do too much," Zimmerman said. "I made a good swing on a decent pitch by Miguel [Batista], just sticking with it and not getting discouraged."
Everything about the Nationals' win in front of 26,739 was steady.
They continually put men on base in the early innings but only managed two runs against Garcia. And when St. Louis manager Tony La Russa turned to the bullpen in the seventh, the Nationals slowly worked their way around the bases.
It started with Zimmerman's double. Then came an RBI groundout to shortstop by Michael Morse, an RBI single up the middle by Danny Espinosa, a run-scoring wild pitch with Ivan Rodriguez batting, a bases-loaded walk to Laynce Nix and another RBI single by Jayson Werth.
"I can't even remember all of the at-bats, there were so many good ones," said manager Jim Riggleman. "We got a couple of breaks and hits that weren't really squared up that well, but we got some good ones."
Nix's may have been the best.
Pinch-hitting for Jerry Hairston Jr. against right-hander Jason Motte with the bases loaded and two out, Nix fouled off six offerings in his 11-pitch at-bat before drawing a walk that scored Wilson Ramos for the go-ahead run.
"He fought off some good pitches," said Motte, who finished the inning Batista started. "I threw him some good cutters in. Threw him some fastballs up, fastballs away. He was fouling this off, fouling that off. It was just one of those at-bats. He fouled off enough pitches and took the balls."
The six-run seventh gave Henry Rodriguez the victory after he and right-hander Ryan Mattheus bailed Yunesky Maya out of his latest start. Tyler Clippard struck out two in a scoreless eighth and Drew Storen saved his fourth consecutive game in the ninth.
Maya, who could be on his way back to Triple-A Syracuse with the impending return of Tom Gorzelanny, didn't escape the fifth inning for the third time in four attempts. He left with two on, two out, and six runs to his name. The Nationals trailed, 6-1, when Mattheus made his Major League debut and escaped Maya's jam.
"I was a little erratic just throwing to the catcher [in the bullpen]," said Mattheus, who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings with two strikeouts. "Once I was out there I actually slowed it down pretty good. It was the initial, 'Hey, Ryan, get going,' that really got me."
Storen finished the game by fielding a Lance Berkman ground ball up the middle after intentionally walking Albert Pujols. Both Berkman and Pujols homered early to put St. Louis (38-30) ahead, but Washington (31-36) consistently threatened afterward, collecting 13 hits.
They stranded men on base every inning after the second until they took the lead, but Zimmerman stayed true to his word, maintained his approach and proved his teammates right in providing a boost.
"This is a good team. I don't think anybody knows that," said Espinosa, who went 3-for-5 with a run scored and RBI. "To get back another piece to the puzzle and have Zim back, this is a team that can do a lot of damage."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.