Slow Start Doesn't Concern Big Man

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

MIAMI, April 23 -- Ryan Zimmerman's grand slam Sunday meant as little as a grand slam can mean, what with his Washington Nationals already trailing by 10 runs, and with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. But after Zimmerman rounded the bases at Dolphin Stadium, he arrived at the visitors' dugout and exchanged a couple of high-fives that seemed to have some emphasis.

Zimmerman is not much for emotional outbursts -- unless he's, say, hitting a game-ending homer against the New York Yankees. This, though, has been a long month for the last-place Nationals -- who begin a three-game series with the Phillies on Tuesday in Philadelphia -- and a long month for the young man who is supposed to lead them.

"There's no need to press or panic or anything," Zimmerman said.

Indeed, the 22-year-old third baseman just might be right. He had two hits in each of the three games against the Marlins, raising his average from .209 to .241. The grand slam doubled his RBI total for the year, giving him eight, and was his first home run. These are, to be sure, not the numbers the Nationals expect or need from Zimmerman. But there appears to be little concern in the Washington clubhouse.

"I think Zimmerman will end up having his numbers," Manager Manny Acta said. "He's pretty close to breaking out."

There is much evidence for that case. Start with the way he began last season, when he was a rookie who was handed the starting job at third base. Through 19 games -- the same number the Nationals (6-13) have played this year -- Zimmerman was hitting .219 with a .310 on-base percentage, a .315 slugging percentage, four doubles, one homer and 12 RBI. He has already cut down on his strikeouts (11 in 83 at-bats this year, as opposed 23 in his first 73 at-bats last season), and his other numbers are similar.

"I think last year was a lot different," Zimmerman said. "Last year, I was struggling and swinging at bad pitches and striking out and not taking walks and not getting into [hitter's] counts and doing all that. I'm not doing that this year. I think that shows how much I've learned in just one year."

As Zimmerman went through a 1-for-22 skid earlier this month that was among the worst in his brief career, he said, "Things worked out all right last year." Indeed, he hit .287 with 20 homers and drove in 110 runs, barely losing out to Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez for the National League's rookie of the year award.

But there is one aspect of Zimmerman's growth this season that he can't control. Last year, he led all of baseball with 198 at-bats with runners in scoring position, nine more than Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. He hit .323 in such situations (which ranked 44th in the majors), resulting in 85 RBI.

The expectation this season, of course, is that without Alfonso Soriano in the leadoff spot -- the left fielder departed as a free agent to the Chicago Cubs -- Zimmerman's chances will go down. "I think that's probably true," Zimmerman said last week. "Sori, he was on base so much."

"There are two ways to look at that," Acta countered. "There were a lot of times where Soriano picked up everyone in front of him" with one of his 46 home runs. "I think he'll balance it out."

Through 19 games, Zimmerman has just 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position, trailing three players -- Ryan Church, Ronnie Belliard and Brian Schneider -- on his own team. Last season, he had 34 such at-bats -- nearly two each day -- through the same number of games.

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