Ryan Zimmerman returns to third base


(David J. Phillip / AP

After the first inning Saturday night, Ryan Zimmerman jogged from third base to the home dugout at Space Coast Stadium during a game for the first time this spring. His manager met him on the top step. “You have any trouble finding your way out there?” Johnson chided Zimmerman.

“I found my out there,” Zimmerman replied. “But I was a lot more nervous than I thought I would be.”

In a 4-2 loss to the Astros, Zimmerman played the field for the time this spring, for the first time since he underwent surgery to repair an inflamed, battered right shoulder in the offseason. In four innings, Zimmerman converted the only play that came his way, winging a sidearm throw to finish off a slow roller. He didn’t face any routine grounders, the kind that troubled him last season. He overcame those pesky nerves, which he rarely admits to.

“We all get nervous,” Zimmerman said. “You hold yourself at such a high standard. You can rehab as much as you want, but you always want to be as good as you were before something happened. It’s part of that process. “

Zimmerman has been torrid at the plate this spring, but his reworked throwing mechanics remained a question. He had been improving, looking more and more “natural,” Johnson said, throwing across the diamond during batting practice. But he had yet to unveil the new motion before a crowd, in the middle of a game.

To lead off the second inning, Astros catcher Carlos Corporan dribbled a grounder toward third base. Zimmerman charged the slow roller, scooped it cleanly and whipped a sidearm throw to first from just a few feet away from the pitcher’s mound. Adam LaRoche squeezed the strong throw at chest-level. It was a difficult play made to look easy, but for Zimmerman it was not the real test. Even with his shoulder in awful condition last year, he could chuck his trademark, submarine darts. The problem came when a routine grounder came his way, and he had time to think, shuffle his feet wind-up.

As he warmed up for the bottom of the third, for example, Zimmerman made two throws across the diamond. The first caused LaRoche to shuffle off the bag and catch it a few feet to the inside part of first base. The second forced LaRoche to scoop the ball on a short hop.

Zimmerman’s throwing motion is “still better than it was,” one scout said. “But it’s not clean yet.”

Zimmerman agreed that he will get better in the two weeks between tonight and the end of spring training. The strength in his shoulder has returned – “I can’t remember the last bad day,” Zimmerman said. But he expects to gain more consistency with his mechanics.

“In two weeks, I’ll be a little bit better than I am right now,” Zimmerman said. “That was the whole point of kind of waiting this long. We wanted to make sure I was ready and capable and doing everything in a game. You don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Take it easy,’ and then you get a backhand, something like that. It’s not like I’m going to catch it and not throw.”

Zimmerman will take tomorrow off, but Johnson plans to play him and the rest of the Nationals’ starters on a regular basis next week. Every game, Zimmerman, will bring more progress until he’s ready to play third for the full season ahead.

“It’s definitely good enough to play in a game,” Zimmerman said. “I just have to build it up to have the longevity for a whole season. I’m perfectly pleased with where it’s at.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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