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It's Two For the Show

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.

Zimmerman's emergence was anticipated. Dunn has snuck up.

Last winter, 29 teams had tepid interest in the free agent despite five straight 40-homer seasons, viewing him as a slacker who struck out 175 times and wasn't bright enough to change. In hindsight, the only thing wrong with Dunn is that the Nats didn't sign him for four years instead of two. With 38 homers, 103 RBI, a .276 average (the highest of his career), 111 walks and a career-best .960 OPS, Dunn is by every credible current measuring stick the fifth- or sixth-best NL offensive player this year, well behind Albert Pujols but right in the group with Prince Fielder, Hanley Ram?rez, Chase Utley, Ryan Braun, Adrian Gonzalez and Derrek Lee.

"Dunn was the most misunderstood player I have heard about in recent memory," Rizzo said. "The way he was misconstrued [in Cincinnati] was almost unbelievable. He plays banged up. He'd go out there 162 games if you'd let him. [Except Pujols] he's the most consistent player in the game the last six years.

"He's not a cheerleader. But if there is still such a thing as a leader by example in this game, he is it. He's a pillar in the clubhouse. He really wants to learn to be a good first baseman."

If Dunn actually becomes half-decent at first, instead of the left fielder the stat geeks live to mock, he'll undergo a reevaluation within the sport even greater than Zimmerman's jump.

"First base, that's going to take me a lot more time than I thought to get good," Dunn said. "But it's going to be fun. It's something I really look forward to."

For the rest of this homestand, fans may watch Dunn try for an exotic, but meaningful record: 40 homers in six straight seasons. He needs two more. Only Babe Ruth ever had seven straight. More interesting, Ruth is the only player with more than eight seasons of 40 homers (11). If Dunn gets No. 6, he may someday stand second only to Ruth. That would get noticed.

"The people who don't appreciate Dunn are people who look at the wrong numbers," Zimmerman said.

A player with a low on-base percentage and high strikeouts has a big problem. But a player with a high on-base percentage (eighth in MLB) and high strikeouts just has a methodology.

Dunn needs to see as many pitches as possible (fourth in MLB) to draw those 111 walks and find 38 pitches suitable for low earth orbit. But high pitch counts also equal strikeouts. The Dunn package is excellent but interconnected. You can't deconstruct it.

"I judge myself by RBI [fifth in the NL] and on-base percentage [sixth in the NL]," Dunn said. "The one thing you can't control is home runs. So I don't worry about them."

Few players have studied the game and themselves better than Dunn. He analyzes his swing "by feel," not mechanics.

"Adam is the dumbest smart guy I ever met," Zimmerman said. "His SAT's were 1,300s. I think he likes it that people don't get him."

Dunn's favorite part of D.C.? "Museums."

The final piece of the Zim-Dunn puzzle is tough: Will they stay together beyond next season? "We never talk about it, but I'm sure we feed off each other," Zimmerman said.

Will the Nats extend Dunn's contract? The longer they wait, the more decent a fielder he may become -- and the price goes up.

"It's so hard to find a true number four hitter. We did," Zimmerman said. "Adam likes Washington. I wouldn't be surprised if he stays here the rest of his career. If he leaves . . ."

Like Nats fans who amid their misery have found one lone distinguished duo, Zimmerman doesn't even want to think about it.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get him to stay here," he says. "Forever."

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