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Ryan Zimmerman returns to play with modified throwing

Ryan Zimmerman on Saturday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Over four-and-a-half hours before Wednesday’s game against the Miami Marlins, Ryan Zimmerman fielded groundballs while Manager Matt Williams watched. Zimmerman has been out of the starting lineup for two games and, coupled with Monday’s offday, received three days of rest for his inflamed right shoulder. He used a modified throwing motion — the three-quarter arm slot instead of coming over the top, which has caused discomfort — while fielding routine grounders.

Zimmerman used it again on Wednesday and made approximately 25 pain-free throws to first and was inserted back into the starting lineup. Now, the Nationals will learn if their plan to manage Zimmerman’s worn shoulder will work.

“I’ve gone through this for awhile now, so you can’t get too relieved,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a constant work in progress. It’s tough. But for now, we found something that I think has a chance to work without hurting. So that’s a relief. Because I want to be out there and I want to help the team win. When I can’t do that, it’s frustrating.”

The three-quarters arm slot isn’t new to Zimmerman. When charging and fielding bunts, and throwing to second base, he throws sidearm and his shoulder doesn’t hurt. It was Williams who suggested throwing from that arm angle on every play, even routine groundballs. Williams, a former third baseman, threw from a similar three-quarters arm slot and told Zimmerman that Cal Ripken Jr. had  similar manner of throwing. “So we’ll play around with it and see if it works,” Zimmerman said.

Because Zimmerman has thrown like that in the past, he believes the mental adjustment to adopting it full-time will minimal. He was, however, unsure how long he would use this modified throwing plan. He is still an option to play first base on occasion, particularly when Adam LaRoche needs an off day or the Nationals are facing a tough left-handed pitcher.

During his pre-game throwing session, Zimmerman’s throws looked smooth, Williams said. LaRoche caught Zimmerman’s throws to first base and also noted improvement.

“A lot stronger,” LaRoche said. “That was the first thing I noticed. He had a lot more life and zip back on the ball. It’s like anything; it’s going to take some practice. … It may take a minute but it looked natural and it’s having a lot more life coming out of his hand.”

Zimmerman, whose shoulder is showing the wear of a career of throwing across the diamond, conceded that he will not be able to play as deep as he would normally against speedy runners. But that wouldn’t be different from the beginning of last season when his throwing was an issue. “We’ll find out,” he said. “We’ll adjust accordingly.”

Part of the adjustment will also be how much Zimmerman throws when not on the field. The Nationals want Zimmerman to throw less outside of the game. He fielded grounders at first base during batting practice but not at third base like normal. Williams said that 20 throws a day of warm-ups is “still a lot.” He hopes that limiting Zimmerman’s side throwing will save his shoulder from further wear.

“He feels comfortable with that [three-quarters] arm angle,” Williams said. “Certainly, it takes pressure off his shoulder and he doesn’t feel it when he does that, which is a positive sign.”