Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn Shine Bright Amid the Gloom

"They give you a place to start," Dodgers batting coach Don Mattingly says of Adam Dunn (44) and Ryan Zimmerman.
"They give you a place to start," Dodgers batting coach Don Mattingly says of Adam Dunn (44) and Ryan Zimmerman. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, September 26, 2009

There's plenty wrong with the Nats. But two very large things are right: Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn. You could hardly have a better Nos. 3-4 core at the center of a lineup. Amid the wreckage of 100 losses, Zimmerman and Dunn have moved up a level this season to full-fledged, undeniable stars.

Most bad teams have no foundation stone on which to build. The Nats have two. Many teams in the wilderness have no identity, no presence. The Nats actually do. As the Dodgers milled around the batting cage at Nationals Park this week, with all-stars here and there, Dunn and Zimmerman looked at ease, in proper company.

"Because of those two, they already have a tough lineup," Dodgers batting coach Don Mattingly said. "They give you a place to start."

By themselves -- and in a sense they almost are by themselves -- Zimmerman and Dunn make the Nats worth watching. Someday, oh, sure, the Nats dream of Stephen Strasburg, Nyjer Morgan, John Lannan, Josh Willingham, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen and next year's No. 1 draft pick all busting out. You know the drill.

But Dunn and Zimmerman are the real deal right now. The Nationals might someday have a far better team, but they won't have many better players. With 10 games still to play, Zimmerman has 31 homers, 100 RBI, a .289 average, a 30-game hitting streak and a season at third base that, in my book, ought to ice his first Gold Glove. He's not Brooks Robinson. But he's Mike Schmidt, Graig Nettles (most underrated), Scott Rolen or anybody else I've seen.

His hands are almost as soft as Cal Ripken's, and I thought Ripken's were the best of any big infielder. Zimmerman has the best range at third by every stat measure, from chances to assists to UZR (ultimate zone rating), in which he actually places higher than any player at any position. He might never get 400 assists, like Robinson, Schmidt and Nettles, but that's because there are fewer balls hit in play now that there are so many more strikeouts.

For the fans, he's flashy and doesn't apologize for style points, playing many short hops sidesaddle, watch-my-reflexes-style.

"On a bad hop, why should I let the ball play me when I can play the ball? Why let it hit my chest and bounce away when I can get it cleanly from the side?" he says.

Yet he's also fundamental; no one's better on barehanding dribblers. I've never seen anyone except Nettles start the double play more audaciously. He likes stealing popups from fans and makes more horizontal racing dives than Michael Phelps.

Other than that, he's just okay.

"Ryan's going to be one of the really great players," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "It'll be an injustice if he is not the Golden Glove. He makes the impossible look routine and the routine look routine."

This year, he's also emerged as a power hitter. Released from vast RFK Stadium and healthy after last season's shoulder injury, he says: "I'm only 24. I can feel myself getting stronger every year." He's a few homers and a dozen extra RBI from a superstar. That may come.

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