Before Sunday’s spring training game, Nationals Manager Matt Williams warned Ryan Zimmerman, a fixture at third for the franchise since he arrived in the majors in 2005, that his anticipated debut at first base would come at some point during the game. And after five innings at his natural position, Zimmerman grabbed his first baseman’s mitt and made the short trot to first for the first time. So, of course, the first ball in play found him.
“It always happens like that,” Zimmerman said afterwards with a smile.
Zimmerman fielded the ball — a broken bat groundball by Don Kelly — and spun toward his right toward second base, a different turn than he is used to. Victor Martinez was at first base, and Zimmerman wanted to start a double play. But in the transfer from the glove to his hand, Zimmerman dropped the ball. That’s expected for a novice at the new position. He found the ball and ran over to first base in time for one out instead. “Just getting used to the bigger glove,” he said.
Zimmerman caught four throws over at first in his two innings there, putting his right foot on the base while reaching for the balls. He has fielded grounders, scooped balls and worked some on his footwork during spring training in anticipation of some playing time there during the regular season. But this was the first time Zimmerman got to put that into practice. And after the game, he said he felt fine playing the position.
“It helps to be out there in the game,” he said. “You can take as many groundballs as you want, but when a right-handed hitter is up there to see how far you can get off. Just learn things like that. I felt good and hopefully I’ll be able to help the team out by doing that.”
“His footwork was good,” Williams added. “That’s a completely different glove over there. He was ready to throw the ball to second but it popped out. He didn’t panic. He stepped on the base.”
Zimmerman said he was nervous playing the position for the first time in a game. He has said all spring that the basics of the position are the same — field and catch the ball — but the responsibilities are different, such as fielding cut-offs and holding runners. He has consulted with Adam LaRoche, whom Zimmerman is expected to replace on occasion during the season against tough opposing left-handed pitchers.
“Even though he’s left-handed, I can still learn the positioning and the way he thinks and what he does,” Zimmerman said. “Not much better of a guy to talk to than him.”
Sunday is just the beginning of what may come for Zimmerman. The Nationals’ $100 million third baseman is expected to spell LaRoche at first about 10 to 15 games this season. LaRoche could be a free agent at the end of this season and Zimmerman could be an option on the other corner down the road.
Williams has stressed he is confident in Zimmerman’s abilities at third base and wants him to focus foremost on his work there. But he will see more time at first this spring. At some point over the next two weeks, Zimmerman may start a game at first.
“I could go play there right now if I needed to [in the season],” he said. “I wouldn’t be as confident as I wanted to be but I feel like I could go do that if I needed to. I’d like to get a few more games just to feel comfortable. Maybe not whole games, but just to get over there and get a little bit more comfortable. But if it was the regular season right now and they needed me to play there I could do it.”