Nats Hoping Zimmerman Provides Boost

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Only Ryan Zimmerman's return can finally fill the void he created some eight weeks ago. Sure, when Zimmerman suffered a left shoulder injury May 18 -- and when he vacated the Washington Nationals' lineup for good after May 25, in a prolonged attempt to recover -- Zimmerman was in the midst of a substandard season. Because of a miserable April, he had just a .257 average. With runners in scoring position, he was batting .170.

But somehow, Zimmerman's importance to the team became more pronounced once his contributions disappeared. Without the third baseman, who will return to the lineup tonight against the San Francisco Giants, Washington had a 16-32 record. The various pieces Washington used to fill Zimmerman's spot -- Aaron Boone, Ronnie Belliard, Kory Casto, Pete Orr and Willie Harris -- have batted, as third basemen, .198 (37 for 187) with just six home runs.

Washington has missed Zimmerman's defense even more than it has missed his bat. Zimmerman -- one of the Nationals' top three fielders, according to Manager Manny Acta -- has made just two errors this season. Before May 26, the Nationals' had a .987 fielding percentage at third base, second in baseball. Since May 26, the Nationals have a .957 fielding percentage, good for a No. 20 ranking. Belliard has made four errors.

Since heading to the disabled list June 3, Zimmerman has successfully recovered from a slight labral tear in his left shoulder without surgery. Acta said that Zimmerman, who was 7 for 25 (.280) during a six-game rehab stint this week with Class A Potomac and Class AAA Columbus, "has no limitations" because of the injury. That was proven, Acta said, when Zimmerman made a play for the Clippers by diving onto his left side for a ground ball.

On Saturday night, at the same time Washington decided to send first baseman Dmitri Young to the disabled list, the Nationals provided the green light for Zimmerman's return. All along, the team had allowed Zimmerman, 23, to gauge when he felt ready. Zimmerman said as much, and the team promoted him, even though General Manager Jim Bowden said: "I don't think he's coming back 100 percent ready to go. It might take him a while to get the bat going, but he's such a great player."

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