Late Sunday morning, Manager Matt Williams walked to the center of the Washington Nationals clubhouse and announced who among them had made the All-Star Game. The delight the players felt for Jordan Zimmermann lasted momentarily. It ceded first to surprise, then to confusion, and by evening it had hardened into anger that no one else in the room was guaranteed to join Zimmermann in Minnesota on July 15.
Infielder Anthony Rendon might, but only if fans vote him in on the five-man final ballot. First baseman Adam LaRoche will not make the first all-star team of his career despite a .401 on-base percentage. Set-up man Drew Storen, with a 1.33 ERA, received no recognition. Most egregious in the Nationals’ minds, closer Rafael Soriano – who owns a 1.03 ERA and 21 saves in 23 chances – will spend the all-star break at home in the Dominican Republic.
“It’s a joke, to be honest with you,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, an all-star in 2011. “I don’t know who’s going to make it. I’m sure there’s a lot of worthy guys out there in the league. But what Soriano has done this year, there’s no way he doesn’t make the all-star team, in my opinion. It’s incredible that he didn’t make it.”
The Nationals, at 48-39, own the fourth-best record in the National League, and they have outscored opponents by 56 runs, best in the NL. But they settled for Zimmermann as their only lone representative.
Zimmermann made his second consecutive All-Star Game by going 7-4 with a 2.79 ERA. In New York last year, a stiff neck reduced Zimmermann to an observer. This year, he will stand on a base line at Target Field and tip his cap. And then he’ll actually play in the game.
“I’m here to throw 200 innings and go deep into ballgames, give these guys a chance to win the game,” Zimmermann said. “I guess if you do that stuff, you get to become an all-star. That’s what’s happened the last couple years.”
Zimmermann grew up in tiny Auburndale, Wis., about a three-hour drive from Minneapolis. He played in the Metrodome in a college tournament, but he’s never been to Target Field, the Twins’ new stadium. “I’m sure I’ll have a decent amount of people coming over,” Zimmermann said. “Hopefully not too many, so I don’t have to buy too many tickets.”
Zimmermann earned his spot with a mammoth surge in June. In May, Zimmermann posted a 5.06 ERA and the league hit .342 against him. His slider, his best pitch, lacked its usual bite. “Five weeks ago, I was thinking I’d be home, having a little vacation,” Zimmermann said.
In June, Zimmermann adjusted his motion, keeping his front shoulder closed longer in his delivery. The vicious, sharp break on his slider finally returned, and his season took off. Zimmermann has punched up a 1.26 ERA in his last seven starts, including the six scoreless innings he threw Sunday to beat the Chicago Cubs.
“It means a lot,” Zimmermann said. “It’s a huge honor. I’m excited. I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t for those guys playing defense behind me every day and catchers calling the pitches. As much as it’s me going, it’s actually all these guys, too.”
Rendon may join him. In his first full season, the 24-year-old has stabilized both third base and second when needed. Among National League third basemen, Rendon entered Sunday ranked second in wins above replacement (3.2), third in batting (.286), fifth in on-base percentage (.343), second in slugging (.489), second in steals (eight), second in RBI (50), fourth in homers (12) and first in runs (60).
“If he doesn’t get on it then I’m going to boycott the All-Star Game,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Rendon will have to beat out Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee, Braves outfielder Justin Upton and Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau.
Sunday afternoon, Rendon displayed the flat-line demeanor that has endeared him to teammates. As reporters crowded around his locker, he placed a folding chair in front of him. “I’m creating a barrier to get away from you all,” he said.
One reporter asked him his reaction to landing on the final vote. “It’s cool,” he said.
Another reporter wanted to know what it would mean to him to win the vote.
“It would mean that I would make the all-star team,” Rendon replied.
Rendon said he would not campaign, not even a little. Confidence flows within Rendon, but outwardly he betrayed no captivation with the first half of his season.
“I don’t know, it was all right,” Rendon said. “I got lucky a couple of times. I guess I’m doing all right.”
His teammates had higher praise. On a team besieged by injuries, Rendon has remained healthy and switched positions when necessary. The Nationals’ first pick in 2011, No. 6 overall, already has delivered on his pedigree.
“I feel like he’s carried us as a team offensively,” center fielder Denard Span said. “He’s played good defense. He’s done everything. Fifty RBI, 50 runs, 12 home runs: What more can you ask for from a middle infield guy?”
The Nationals had plenty of other questions, too. They believed their performance warranted more than one all-star, and they questioned how much popularity plays into the selections.
“The All-Star Game isn’t really what it used to be,” Zimmerman said. “I think a lot of people don’t get recognized that should. Hopefully they will, but if not there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
Soriano’s demeanor may not have helped him. He pitches with a blank face, and after saves he angrily rips out his shirttail, an affront to the baseball etiquette hard-liners within the sport.
“How much does that matter when he’s got numbers like he’s got?” Clippard said. “It’s eye-popping stuff. You have to take notice. Somebody didn’t take notice, and it doesn’t really seem right.”