As his varied defensive future grew clearer, Ryan Zimmerman stepped closer to his return from a broken thumb Wednesday afternoon when he took full batting practice and fielded infield groundballs for the first time since he went on the disabled list April 12.
“Today,” Manager Matt Williams said, “was a big day for him.”
Zimmerman played catch up to 120 feet, blasted several of Livan Hernandez’s pitches over the Nationals Park fence and took grounders at first base, spinning and firing accurate, smooth throws to second. He did not receive any work at third base or in left field, where he has been training consistently for nearly two weeks.
“He looked good,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He had strength. The balls he didn’t center up [with the bat], by the vibration of the bat he didn’t have any pain. It looks like he’s got good strength to it. He’s always quick to return, getting his timing and his eye back. I like the way he looked today.”
While Zimmerman plans to take grounders at third tomorrow, it has been clear since mid-May that the Nationals have considered playing Zimmerman in left field. Manager Matt Williams dismissed the drills as “conditioning” at first, but recently he has inched closer to making public the Nationals’ stance – that he could play left, first or third.
“There’s options to put him in any of those three positions,” Williams said.
Zimmerman reiterated what he told The Post on Tuesday: That Williams has not discussed with him specific plan for his defense, but that he feels comfortable in the outfield and would not complain when asked.
“I feel comfortable wherever makes sense for me to help the team win,” Zimmerman said. “I think anybody in this clubhouse would do that. I’m not sure if I could pitch or catch, but I feel like I could play pretty much anywhere else on the baseball and not look out of place. I take pride in being a pretty good athlete.”
Wednesday afternoon, Zimmerman showed little rust at the plate. With Hernandez throwing both batting-practice fastballs and a few curveballs, Zimmerman launched balls all over Nationals Park. He drilled the fifth pitch he saw into the red seats. He pelted the right field wall. Late in the session, Zimmerman clobbered a ball that landed in the last row of the red seats.
Zimmerman attributed his still-there power to his regimen over the past month. Though his broken thumb prevented him from doing baseball activities, he could lift weights and run at a rate similar to his offseason routine.
“For four or five weeks, I really got after it in the weight room, because that was the only thing I could do,” Zimmerman said. “I’m probably stronger than I was before. It’s just about being able to repeat the swing, and swing like I normally swing.”
Wednesday, Zimmerman took more swings than he typically would in a session of batting practice, purposefully trying to wear himself out. His thumb felt no pain – he hit one of Hernandez’s curveballs off the end of the bat, but the vibration did not hurt any worse than usual.
Zimmerman threw up to 120 feet. Thursday, he will stretch out to 150, “which is really all you need,” Zimmerman said. He wants to test his body, to make sure muscles made vulnerable during the baseball season – his obliques, hamstrings, etc. – are prepared.
“That’s kind of the point of these last two days and the next couple days,” Zimmerman said. “We’ll kind of reassess it and go from there.”
Would it be realistically for Zimmerman to play in a rehab assignment this weekend? Neither Zimmerman nor Williams wanted to commit.
“What we don’t want is a setback,” Williams said. “Can you imagine pushing too fast and having him go out on a rehab assignment and pulling a muscle? That’s what we don’t want. When we get him back, we want him back for the rest of the season. So we’re not going to push him too hard.”
“From the bone standpoint, he’s ready right now,” Rizzo said. “It’s more about getting his arm stretched out and able to play defensively with his arm, and getting his timing offensively. He’s a veteran player. We’ll lean heavily on what he thinks, and what we see when he goes out to rehab.”