Ryan Zimmerman paused to watch as the ball screamed off his bat and toward the outfield fence Sunday afternoon. Zimmerman had pushed the Nationals back into Game 1 of their doubleheader, slicing their deficit from three to one in what would become a 4-2 loss to the Marlins. He had also accomplished something of a milestone.
The questions about what had happened to Zimmerman’s power seem eons ago, not just last month. Zimmerman smashed his major league-leading 11th home run of September, which pushed his season total to 26. Only once in his career, when he hit 33 in 2009, had Zimmerman ever hit more.
“That’s why you play all 162,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, they don’t give out MVPs in April. And they don’t give out LVPs in April, either. At the end of the year, guys are what they are. Do I wish I was the same guy every month and was consistent? Yeah, but that’s just not how it works out.”
Zimmerman’s September surge has vaulted him to a tie for fifth in the National League in homers. He’s hit more than, among others, Joey Votto, Hunter Pence and Freddie Freeman. Three weeks ago, he had hit 15 all year.
Zimmerman had no explanation beyond his season evening out. One cause could be Zimmerman’s spot in the batting order. Manager Davey Johnson started hitting Zimmerman second in early August, but in September Zimmerman has batted second every game but two.
With red-hot Jayson Werth hitting behind him, Zimmerman has seen better pitches to drive. In 445 plate appearances hitting anywhere but second, Zimmerman has hit 15 homers. Meanwhile, he has bashed 11 in just 162 plate appearances as a No. 2 hitter.
Sunday, Zimmerman’s homer couldn’t help the Nationals win. For 5 2/3 innings, Marlins right-hander Tom Koehler faced one batter of the minimum. The Nationals had swatted two hits, both singles and both erased on double plays from the very next batter. With two outs in the sixth, Denard Span walked, hardly a sign of life.
And then Zimmerman pushed the Nationals back into the game. Koehler threw Zimmerman a 2-1, belt-high fastball, and Zimmerman crushed it into the red seats.
The Nationals trailed, 3-2, but the Marlins tacked a run on to their lead off Ryan Mattheus in the seventh. Johnson said later he wished he had started the inning with lefty Fernando Abad to face Juan Pierre. Pierre led off with a single that, incredibly, gave him more career hits than Joe DiMaggio. Pierre stole second and moved to third on Mattheus wild pitch, then scored on Donovan Solano’s sac fly to left.
The insurance run made it 4-2 and proved crucial in the eighth. Steve Lombardozzi led off with a single, and Johnson sent Zach Walters to pinch hit. Down one, the Nationals could have played for one run and tried a sacrificed bunt. Instead, Walters had to swing away, and Chad Qualls induced a 4-6-3 double play that killed the rally before it could start.
The Nationals could not generate any offense other than Zimmerman’s home run, but those have not been too rare lately.