Thursday afternoon, Davey Johnson planned to have a talk with Ryan Zimmerman. He had watched old film this winter from 2006, Zimmerman’s rookie year, and he wanted Zimmerman, in the wake of offseason shoulder surgery, to return to that throwing motion – overhand, smooth, natural.
They met in Johnson’s office, and before Johnson could start to speak, Zimmerman told him his plans. He wanted a more natural motion, no more of the awkward, step-by-step mechanics brought on by a balky shoulder joint.
“I said, ‘Hallelujah,’ ” Johnson said. “He wants to get back to that natural, fluid motion coming to first. I’m excited about that. That’s the best news I’ve had this spring.”
Zimmerman’s return to a smoother throwing motion will come slowly, as he uses this spring to build strength in his shoulder. Today, he stood in a batting cage and made 25 throws from 60 feet and 25 more from 75 feet. He could have thrown from longer, he said, but in mid-February he will prioritize caution.
Johnson envisions Zimmerman appearing in his first Grapefruit League game two weeks into the schedule. Zimmerman is fine with that; he wants 50 at-bats per spring, no more and no less, to make him feel ready for the season. He has yet to take batting practice, instead driving soft flips into a net. Caution is his plan. Zimmerman harbors no concern his shoulder will prevent him from being ready for opening day.
In a Nationals camp defined by expectations cranked to nosebleed altitude, Zimmerman has a modest hope. He wants to feel comfortable again on a baseball diamond, the way he has always felt.
As he played last season through cortisone shots to numb the cacophonous pain in his right shoulder, Zimmerman’s shoulder would not move in the way his brain told it to. His throwing motion turned into a Frankenstein monster, a series of movements forced together to keep him on the field. He made 12 throwing errors, reduced from a defensive whiz to a question mark.
“I think we feel most comfortable when we’re on the baseball field,” Zimmerman said. “To feel uncomfortable is a really bad feeling. It’s like I feel when I do public speaking. But I’m not supposed to feel like that when I’m playing baseball.”
Even in recovery from the November surgery, which repaired an inflamed, arthritic AC joint, along with fraying in both his labrum and rotator cuff, Zimmerman feels more at ease throwing the ball.
“A lot freer is the best way to explain it,” Zimmerman said. “Things are cleaned out. Now it’s just a matter of getting it in shape and strengthening it up again. We do that every day, just kind of slow and steady with the throwing progression. Take our time and get it back to the strength it was at before it was all jacked up.”
Zimmerman’s shoulder issues dogged him all through last year. He landed on the disabled list in late April – the injury, it turned out, that landed Bryce Harper in the major leagues ahead of schedule. He slumped horribly upon his return, the inflammation sapping his power until a cortisone injection in June. Zimmerman clobbered the ball like an MVP with the pain numbed, but the damage inside his shoulder – even if he couldn’t feel it – wrecked his throwing mechanics.
Each time he was asked about his shoulder, he would reply that he felt fine. He wasn’t lying – the cortisone had masked the pain. He also acknowledged the logical follow-up question: Then why are you playing so bad?
“We went through some things last year,” Zimmerman said. “They did a good job of getting me healthy enough to contribute. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t work, and it was frustrating for everyone involved, I think, myself included. Those are the things you do. The team we had last year and the way that we were playing, there was no way that I wasn’t going to play.
“Obviously, sometimes it didn’t look so good. It was probably the first time I ever felt uncomfortable on a baseball field at any time. But we battled through it. The training staff and all those guys did a great job helping me get through. Having that in the past and being able to work now, kind of starting fresh, it’s refreshing.”