The forces fighting within Ryan Zimmerman finally tipped Saturday night. The impulse to play, to be there for teammates and be part of what he always wanted, had won. The impulse to rest, to recognize his limitations and step away from a dream season, had lost.
No more. Saturday night, Zimmerman finally admitted to himself and to his team what had become cruelly obvious. He is not himself, and he cannot be himself, because of the inflammation in his right shoulder wreaking havoc with the timing of his swing. Zimmerman tried to play through the injury until the injury consumed him.
“Nobody wants to stop,” Zimmerman said. “That’s not the nature of this game. Everyone plays until basically they break, which isn’t always the smartest thing, but that’s how we’ve been raised in this game. But I haven’t really been helping the team lately, offensively. I feel like I’ve done some other things to help the team win. It’s just frustrating. Obviously we’re playing good, we have a good team. And I want really bad to be a part of that.”
It will hurt the Nationals to miss Zimmerman, but it will not derail a season built on an otherworldly pitching staff. After all, they never really had him to begin with. He is hitting .218 with a .285 on-base percentage and a .305 slugging percentage. He has compiled exactly zero wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.com, which means the Nationals, in theory, could cull a serviceable third baseman from Class AAA and expect the same contribution.
The Nationals are in first place despite Zimmerman, not because of him, which might be the saddest subplot – Wilson Ramos’s torn ACL is up there, too – of an otherwise charmed season. Zimmerman slogged admirably through years of losing. He believed ownership when it asked him for patience and promised better times. He made Washington home. He started a charity. This should have been the season the baseball world at large came to appreciate Zimmerman the way fans at Nationals Park do. Instead, his shoulder is busted and he has performed like a replacement player.
The Nationals need not feel buyer’s remorse 70 games into a contract extension that lasts through 2019 and will pay him $100 million. But Zimmerman’s season so far will not quell questions about his durability. Even before his likely upcoming disabled list stint, Zimmerman has missed 150 games – virtually a whole season – to injury since 2008. This is his seventh full season, and he has had injury issues in four of them.
In spring training, Zimmerman became a wealthy man and signed a contract that will ensure his grandchildren never go hungry. But for him, the money lessens none of the frustration. The Nationals are finally having the season Zimmerman dreamed of. He has spent much of it in the trainer’s room, receiving massages, ultrasounds, heat, cold – anything that may keep doctors from shooting more cortisone into his shoulder, a procedure that puts at risk the future fitness of the joint and sends him temporarily to the sideline.
Zimmerman does not want to stop. No one does. The Nationals’ clubhouse and training room is chock-full of players gutting through sore muscles and strains and sprains. The nature of the game makes you go until you break, or maybe past that point. Zimmerman was asked, how do you know when you’re broken?
“You feel a lot worse than I feel right now,” he said.