On Sept. 1, Zimmerman had 15 home runs. He insisted a hot stretch would surface and his power would return. In the past nine games, he has smashed seven homers, bringing his total to 22. His defense has turned from liability to solid. It may not be a coincidence the dual improvements coincided.
“I’ve always been taught to separate” fielding and hitting, Zimmerman said. “But I think baseball is contagious. I don’t know if it was me trying to do more to make up mistakes I made defensively. It’s not fun to go out there and make errors and do things to hurt the team. It’s just nice to be able to go out and play baseball again.”
The Nationals, having won 22 of 31 games, remain on the edge of the playoff chase, six games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the National League’s second wild-card spot with 17 to play. “I don't know how many more games we can lose,” Haren said. “I know [Jayson] Werth was doing some math, but that math keeps getting smaller and smaller.”
Zimmerman watched from the bench as Rafael Soriano collected his 41st save because a muscle in his back tightened up, the product of getting hit by a ball as he slid into second on a steal. Zimmerman said he will be fine Thursday, when he will continue a season that included the lowest depths of his career and will end, roughly, in the same place most of his years end.
“If you don't have perseverance, you get knocked down and you get humbled,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He's been a prime example of that. That's not always easy to find in a $100 million player. Usually, those guys have already been through their fair share of bumps and bruises. For Zim, he's been blessed and fortunate to really have never had any. … It's hard to kind of brush that stuff off and he's done a great job of it. That's why he's a cornerstone of the organization.”
Haren outdueled promising right-hander Zach Wheeler for most of the night, and the Nationals opened up the game only when Anthony Rendon cracked a two-run double in the eighth. Wheeler sliced through the Nationals’ lineup until Zimmerman walked to the plate to lead off the sixth inning.
Wheeler froze Zimmerman with a first-pitch slider over the plate, and the buzzed a fastball over the corner for strike two. Wheeler tried to finish Zimmerman off with another slider, but it hung over the plate. Zimmerman smashed it to left field. He had launched the 175th homer of his career, and just the fifth on an 0-2 pitch. The Nationals led, 1-0.