(Alex Brandon / AP)


The magic that Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg created opening day may not have been possible without the original face of the Nationals’ franchise. Ryan Zimmerman’s defense has been scrutinized all spring, and in the Nationals’ opener he made perhaps the most crucial defensive play of the day.

In the first inning, Strasburg had only retired two consecutive batters on his way to 19 in a row. Juan Pierre stood on third, having singled and advanced on both outs. Placido Polanco ripped a two-hopper that seemed destined for left field. Zimmerman took one step, fully extended on a dive to his left and snared the smash. He hopped to his feet and made a sidewinding throw across the diamond, in time to make the third out.

“I’ve seen so many he’s done that it’s almost common nature around here,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That play kept them from scoring a run, that was outstanding. He looks free and easy throwing the ball to first, which in this cool weather, I was concerned about.”

Zimmerman’s brilliant play saved not only a run, but it also prevented Strasburg from throwing an unknown number of pitches and let him find his rhythm. He would not throw another pitch from the stretch until the seventh inning. Once the Nationals came to bat, Bryce Harper smashed his first homer, and Nationals Park turned into a party.

“To be able to make plays like that behind Stephen, all of us want to do that for him,” Zimmerman said. “When you know what kind of stuff he has, you’re going to have two or three times per game when he has to make a big pitch and we have to make a big play for him. It just so happened it was the first inning. … Obviously, it was momentum.”

Zimmerman did not have any more chances to make highlight reel plays. But he made two routine throws without issue. On those kind of plays, everybody in Nationals Park will watch carefully until he removes any doubt about his new throwing motion, which he forged this spring as he returned from shoulder surgery.

First baseman LaRoche had to pick Zimmerman’s first throw out of the dirt, but that was an unconventional heave – he hopped to his feet and needed to make a quick release. The other two throws appeared to be smooth. Zimmerman did not use classic form, but the throws arrived at LaRoche’s chest level.

“You see different mechanics,” LaRoche said prior to the game. “You see a guy that had a shoulder patched up and had to basically come out – I don’t want to say learn how to throw again. But anytime you come off shoulder surgery – and I know, I did it two years ago – it’s a weird feeling for a while. It took him some time.

“I know he worked on it a ton on just changing those mechanics, just to get more consistent. And so far he has done it. The ball has been a lot flatter, straighter coming over there. And it’ll be one of those things where he gets a few balls and gains some confidence, he’s going to take off.”