By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009
The enduring image was also a repeating image, because Ryan Zimmerman did the same thing five times yesterday. Five times Zimmerman dug into the batter's box, tried to end his slump, and instead only found a way to lengthen it. Five times, field level television cameras followed Zimmerman on that long walk back to the dugout -- the panorama of a player in failed pursuit. Once, on this walk, Zimmerman grabbed the bubble gum from his mouth and flung it to the ground. Once, he half-jerked his bat toward the earth, as if contemplating a little vengeance. Always, he rolled his head toward the sky, and said nothing.
"He's a little bit lost right now," Manager Manny Acta said.
When it happened for the final time yesterday -- the walk, the cameras, the head-shaking -- everything was in gentle decline. The sun was setting, the batting average was sinking, and the team itself was falling to the Toronto Blue Jays at Nationals Park, 9-4. That defeat snapped a four-game winning streak and called attention to the struggles of the Nationals' most struggle-proof player.
Any reasoned list of Washington's problems this year includes Zimmerman only if you're including a footnoted category for "Observers." Even if Zimmerman had gone 2 for 5 yesterday, Washington still might have lost. Rookie starter Shairon Martis snapped the team's run of commanding starting pitching with a five-inning, six-earned run eyesore that included a 38-pitch first inning. Later, in the top of the ninth, reliever Joel Hanrahan further hammered away at Washington's comeback chances, serving up three more Toronto runs -- all with two outs. The loss didn't ruin the weekend -- the Nationals are used to winning two games per fortnight, not per series -- but it sharpened the sense of Zimmerman's slump. And it heightened the team's desire to have its .300 hitter back.
Zimmerman was batting .348 one month ago, .310 entering this series, and .299 entering the series finale. His 0-for-5 day dropped the number to .293, and extended his hitless streak to 17 at-bats. In each game against Toronto, Zimmerman went 0 for 5; before this series, he had gone 0 for 5 just twice all year. In four at-bats yesterday, he came to the plate with runners on. Whatever he tried -- working counts, swinging early -- he left them there.
"We had a lot of opportunities," Zimmerman said. "We haven't capitalized on nearly enough of them."
In some ways, Zimmerman has a personality well-suited for a tough stretch. By nature, he downplays the good same as he downplays the bad; his emotions, at least when reacting to the day-to-day, run flatter than a Kansas highway. He didn't even acknowledge his hitting streak earlier this season until it hit 12 games. He views the season in month-long at-bat chunks, and even when he was hitting .360, he suspected that a .220 might be just around the corner.
Well, now it's here. Since his 30-game hitting streak ended on May 13, Zimmerman is batting .221 (136 at-bats). Yesterday, he looked very much in search of that earlier groove. In the first, with two on and no outs, he struck out by waving at a Ricky Romero breaking ball in the dirt. He led off the third by trying to bunt for a hit; instead, he popped it back to the mound. In the fifth, with a runner on second, he swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded to short. Before his afternoon ended, he struck out in the seventh and popped out in foul territory in the ninth.
After the game, Zimmerman acknowledged only a micro-slump. He called it "three bad games," nothing more, and asked, "Three bad games out of how many? I think that's what is going on. It happens to everybody. Enjoy the day off and get back to it."
Said Acta: "He's chasing, going out of the zone a little bit and taking some breaking balls that he was handling when he was hot. Obviously it's a totally different scenario. When he was going through that streak, he was just locked in. But he'll be right back. Right now, he's just got to go one at-bat at a time and not try to put the whole slump away with one swing."
The Nationals need him. The top of their lineup is still functioning. Against Toronto, lead-off man Cristian Guzmán, No. 2 hitter Nick Johnson, and cleanup hitter Adam Dunn all had two hits. But Zimmerman is the piece that parlays productivity into runs. Without his help, the bottom of Washington's order has a greater burden -- and right now, it's not equipped to help much. Not with Austin Kearns a non-factor. Not with Elijah Dukes in a tailspin. Not with starting catcher Jesús Flores injured, perhaps for the rest of the season.
"We do need those guys," Acta said, referring to the top of his order, "because right now, the bottom of our order, it's not where we want it to be. Once we go past the fifth hitter, we do have quality players there, but we lack the punch."