Ryan Zimmerman plays first game at first: ‘He’s a natural over there’

Jeff Roberson / Associated Press

Ryan Zimmerman made his career first start at first base on Sunday and looked comfortable playing his second new position of the season. Nationals Manager Matt Williams inserted Zimmerman at first base on Sunday against St. Louis Cardinals left-handed starter Jaime Garcia so that he could get rest for Adam LaRoche, who hasn’t had much success against Garcia in the past, and get little-used lefty-masher Scott Hairston in left field.

Zimmerman, who had been playing his new position of left field for the previous 12 games, made 12 putouts at first base and did well across the diamond from his long-time position of third base. He made a nice running catch of a bunt pop-up by Kolten Wong in foul territory in the third inning. He made a difficult stretch of a high throw from Danny Espinosa to nab Jhonny Peralta, all while keeping his right foot on the bag.

“It’s simple,” Zimmerman said after the game in his typical even-keeled manner. “Catch the ball. Just have to learn the responsibilities and things like that, which is always the hardest thing to learn. Other than that, I felt good.”

First base was the secondary position Zimmerman was supposed to play all along this season. Williams told Zimmerman in the offseason to get a first baseman’s glove and prepare to play 10-15 games at first base to spell LaRoche against tough left-handed pitchers. It was to be the beginning, perhaps, of Zimmerman’s potential move across the diamond in the future, his chronic right shoulder becoming more of an issue with his throwing from third base.

With Bryce Harper injured, the Nationals had a void in left field and that was an ideal position for Zimmerman to ease himself and his shoulder back into action. Sunday was the first chance to play Zimmerman at first.

He was “pretty good,” Williams said after the game. “He did fine. He’s a natural over there. He’s got no issue. He’s fine.”

LaRoche has been the Nationals’ best overall hitter so far this season, posting a .299/.410/.492 line and 149 OPS+. And even though left-handed batters (.277) have hit Garcia better in his career than right-handed batters (.260), LaRoche is 1 for 8 all-time against Garcia. With Zimmerman at first, the Nationals lineup is also boosted by the addition of Hairston, who hits left-handed pitchers well but has only three at-bats this month.

“I like being out there doing whatever I can,” Zimmerman said before the game. “I’ve been playing the bulk of left field with Harp out. I’m enjoying doing that. Give Rochy a day off and go over there and play. Rochy has played great this year so not much time for me to play over there, which is fine. But I’m ready to do whatever.”

Zimmerman will return to left field sometime after Sunday, but the game was a glimpse of one position he may play more of in the future. When Harper returns, however, at some point next month, Williams has said that Zimmerman will return to third base.

“That’s the position I need to play when Harp comes back,” Zimmerman said. “As far as doing anything different, most of all I’ve been working on left field pretty much because that’s the position I’m going to play the bulk of the time, especially for the next two or three weeks or month, whatever it is until Harp gets back. Obviously that’s a position I’ve never really played so I have to do most of my work there. I’m making some time to do some work at third and first. And once Harp gets a little bit closer, we’ll start doing a little bit more groundballs to get back into that groove.”

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