Saturday night, Ryan Zimmerman looked nothing like a broken fielder ready to move to first base. He corralled a one-hop smash down the third base with his backhand, took one step, jumped in the air and rifled the ball overhand across the diamond. It reached Adam LaRoche on one purposeful hop, in time to beat Marlins second baseman Donovan Solano.
Moments like that, more and more, have started to replace the moments that made Zimmerman wonder. They have changed to his answer a question at the center of the Washington Nationals’ future. Does Zimmerman still see himself as a third baseman, not yet ready to make the move across the diamond? Now, yes.
“If you would have asked me that in May,” Zimmerman said. “I might have been a little skeptical.”
Sunday afternoon, as he packed for New York in the visiting clubhouse at Marlins Park, Zimmerman reflected on the most challenging season of his career. After an arduous year, Zimmerman now admits he wavered about his future at third base for the first time. There were days he didn’t want to go out to the field. Zimmerman has committed 21 errors this season, 16 of them on bad throws. Early in the season, his confidence eroded. In the wake of shoulder surgery he underwent in November, Zimmerman at one point questioned his long-term future at third.
“Before, I never, ever thought about it,” Zimmerman said. “I love playing third base. I think I’m pretty good at it. But when you start making that errors, and your confidence gets down, you start thinking well, [shoot], I can’t even frickin’ help the team. A lot of bad things creep in there. It’s been frustrating and trying. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself this year defensively. Which I never, ever had to think about before in my life. Hopefully once I get past it, get done with it, it will make me a better player.”
Early in the year, doctors and trainers kept telling Zimmerman the effects from his shoulder surgery would dissipate in June or July. And yet the wild throws and errors kept piling up, an albatross for him and a burden for the Nationals.
“My arm was feeling better, but obviously the results weren’t better,” Zimmerman said. “It’s tough. It’s not fun. I’ll be honest. It’s tough to go out there every day when you feel like that. … Nobody wants to not do their job. For a while there, I wasn’t doing my job. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to go out there every day and have that feeling. You just got to battle through it.”
The decision for whether Zimmerman moves to first base next season, ultimately, will not be his. No matter how Zimmerman feels, the Nationals’ front office could trade Adam LaRoche, who has one year and $12 million left on his contract. They could move Anthony Rendon to his natural position of third base. And they could shift Zimmerman to first in the first season of a six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in the spring of 2012.
Zimmerman, though, believes that will not be necessary. Zimmerman has felt more strength return to his arm. Once his arm started responded and he could repeat a fluid, overhand motion, he started to gain confidence. For him to improve, he had to resist the urge to not risk feeling helpless.
“To be honest with you, the only thing that makes you feel better and makes you gain confidence is to go play,” Zimmerman said. “You have to put yourself in that uncomfortable situation to make yourself comfortable. Which is why so many people give up or don’t want to do it. They’re afraid to put themselves in that uncomfortable position. It’s not easy. A lot of guys have to deal with it. Some people get through it. Some don’t.”
Looking back, Zimmerman believes a lack of arm strength contributed to his early struggles. “But part of it is a year and a half of bad habits that I’ve created trying to play hurt,” Zimmerman said. “Those are hard to break. As the year has gone on, I’ve gotten more consistent with my arm angle or my release point – whatever you want to call it. Obviously, that makes you a little more confident. I’d say it’s a combination of both those things.”
In early 2012, Zimmerman began battling inflammation in the AC joint of his right shoulder. When he underwent surgery, doctors also found fraying in his labrum and rotator cuff. In 2011, Zimmerman had already tried to overhaul his throwing motion after abdominal surgery. As he struggled through 2012, unable to lift his arm all the way above his head, Zimmerman programmed himself to throw the wrong way.
“Muscle memory is a good thing sometimes. And it’s a bad thing sometimes,” Zimmerman said. “I was just doing whatever I could to try to get the ball over there. I created bad habits. Those are hard to break. It’s not easy to go out there when you know you’re still working on things. I don’t like to make errors. I want to make every play for these guys. I feel terrible when I make errors for these guys. The more I go out there, the more comfortable I get, and hopefully the better it continues to get.”
Zimmerman believes a return to a normal offseason routine will help. Zimmerman will take a month off and then lift heavy weights until January, when he customarily backs off to ensure a full range of motion. Last year, Zimmerman’s surgery prevented him from lifting and adding muscle like usual.
“I look forward to actually being able to work out and play golf and be a normal human in the offseason for once,” Zimmerman said.
Many close Nationals observers believe Zimmerman’s throwing issues hovered over him and affected his hitting. Zimmerman is not sure about that, but his offensive numbers have improved as he has gained confidence at third base. In the past six days, Zimmerman has bashed five home runs. He has now for the season, and with a strong finish over the final 20 games he can close in on his career norms.
“The only thing I can tell you is, usually at the end of the year I have what I’m supposed to have,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t really know how I get there or how I have in the past or what. I usually have somewhere between 20 and 30, and if it’s a really good year I have over 30. It’s just kind of how it works out, I guess.”
FROM THE POST
The Nationals escaped Miami with a 6-4 victory over the Marlins, but Stephen Strasburg’s bizarre balk problem made it closer than it had to be.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Harrisburg 5, Erie 1: Saturday night, Harrisburg advanced to the Eastern League Championship with a 3-1 series victory. Steve Souza went 4 for 4 with three doubles. Rick Hague went 2 for 5. Billy Burns went 2 for 5. Robbie Ray allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings on three hits and two walks, striking out six.
Salem 4, Potomac 0: The P-Nats fell behind, 2-0, in the Mills Cup series. Cutter Dykstra went 2 for 4. Brett Mooneyham allowed two runs in four innings on one hit and four walks, striking out three. .
Hagerstown 6, West Virginia 2: Saturday night, Hagerstown advanced to the South Atlantic League championship series with a 2-1 series win. Isaac Ballou, a 15th round pick this year, went 4 for 5 with a double. Wander Ramos went 2 for 5 with a double. Kylin Turnbull allowed two runs over five innings on six hits and two walks, striking out three.