After unpacking some belongings at his locker in the back of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Tuesday morning, Ryan Zimmerman walked out onto the field at Nationals Park for the first time in 2018 in full batting practice attire — red cap and pullover, white baseball pants, gray spikes — to participate in his team’s usual on-field pregame routine.
He patrolled first base, took batting practice and completed his work by running the bases. He sprinted around the diamond four times, simulating various base running scenarios and taking breathers along the way. Nothing seemed abnormal. He was huffing and puffing by the end of it.
“It’s hot,” Zimmerman said as he entered the dugout, apparently immune to the 44-degree chill on a gloomy day. “It’s hot out here. I feel great.”
Zimmerman prepared as if he were going to play in Tuesday’s exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins — Washington’s final tuneup before Opening Day on Thursday in Cincinnati. Only he didn’t. Matt Adams started at first base, and Zimmerman was one of Washington’s two healthy position players to not see the field.
Without Zimmerman, the Nationals fell, 3-1, in front of a sparse afternoon crowd. Gio Gonzalez needed just 37 pitches to get through three scoreless innings. Trea Turner, batting sixth, smacked a solo home run to account for Washington’s lone run. Shawn Kelley then surrendered a solo homer to Ehire Adrianza in the seventh inning; it was the sixth home run Kelley allowed in his past five outings. The Twins added two runs off Trevor Gott in the ninth to take the lead, dropping the Nationals’ exhibition season record to 13-16-2. Not that anyone noticed.
“Everybody is healthy and good and ready to go,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Spring training is officially over.”
Before the game, Martinez said he gave Zimmerman the option to play. Zimmerman decided not to, further provoking angst from a fan base wondering why the team’s supposedly healthy starting first baseman was absent from nearly every game this spring.
“He said he wanted to stick with the game plan,” Martinez said. “That’s what we did.”
That game plan is one of the more radical season preparation strategies in recent memory. Zimmerman, rarely shy about sharing his displeasure for spring training, played in one official exhibition game this spring. He compiled two at-bats. Starting pitchers Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and A.J. Cole finished the exhibition season with as many. Stephen Strasburg had three. Max Scherzer tallied five.
But the 33-year-old Zimmerman, whose injury history does not quell apprehension from outsiders, again insisted he will start Thursday, weather permitting, against the Cincinnati Reds. As did his manager. They are confident the at-bats he compiled on the back fields in minor league games at the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. — and his work in other facets — are sufficient.
“I feel awesome,” Zimmerman said. “I feel ready to go. … And like I told plenty of people [in West Palm Beach], I had plenty of seasons where I hit .400 [in spring training] and springs where I hit .200. And once that first game comes, none of that means anything.”
Last year, Zimmerman batted .302 with two home runs and a .903 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 53 at-bats over 23 exhibition games. The production was, for once, an indication of what came next: Zimmerman went on to hit .420 with 11 home runs through the end of April en route to a bounceback all-star season.
Yet Zimmerman, with approval from his rookie manager, decided to change his approach. Why? Because he didn’t believe putting himself at risk of injury was worth it. He figured he could repeat that production — or improve upon it — by dialing it back at his age. And so he did, until the very end.
“We worked out a plan for him, and it worked out really well,” Martinez said. “He’s healthy. He feels good. He made a comment telling me this was the best spring he’s had and he feels great. So I’m looking forward to getting him on the field Opening Day.”
Note: The Nationals placed second baseman Daniel Murphy and right-handed relievers Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover on the disabled list.
Murphy (knee) and Benoit (forearm) were put on the 10-day DL. Glover (shoulder) went on the 60-day DL to create a roster spot for Miguel Montero.