Zimmerman has taken his bat and shattered the clock with it. It is the second week of June, and he has been the Washington Nationals’ most efficient hitter, clubbing eight homers in 110 plate appearances. He was not going to start against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night, but the game was postponed because of inclement weather. It will be made up as part of a split doubleheader at Nationals Park on Saturday. The first leg will start at 2:05 p.m. and the second at 7:15. Both contests will be seven innings.
“I mean to be honest, I really had no idea what to expect,” Zimmerman said Wednesday when asked whether he is surprised at how much he has contributed off the bench. “I can tell you — and we’ve talked about this before, too — my body feels better when I’m not playing every day. To have the chance to have a couple days off after you play a couple days, or you know you’re going to play against some lefties.”
The latest exhibit of Zimmerman’s surge: two home runs Wednesday night in the Nationals’ 9-7 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. In the third inning, Zimmerman took Shane McClanahan’s high-and-outside fastball out to right field. In the fifth, after Juan Soto was walked by reliever Jeffrey Springs to start the inning, Zimmerman lifted a low-and-in slider to the left field seats. In just his 21st start, he raised the highest home run percentage of his career to 7.3.
Small sample or not, that is a lot of production from a backup first baseman. That’s also the conundrum with Zimmerman’s early numbers.
Josh Bell has gotten a greater share of the innings and at-bats in that spot. When Bell was acquired in an offseason trade, the Nationals vowed to play him every day and have mostly stuck to that plan. And while he has been one of the Nationals’ better hitters in the past few weeks, Bell began the season in a major slump, right as Zimmerman started his ongoing tear. Zimmerman’s at-bats have come against tough lefties or in American League ballparks.
That led to starts Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., then scheduled rest against Giants right-hander Anthony DeSclafani on Thursday before the game was postponed. It was the first time Zimmerman started on back-to-back days since Bell returned from the coronavirus-related injured list in mid-April.
“And that was the plan. I know where I’m at in my career. As much as I want to play every day, it’s not the best for me, and, honestly, I don’t think it’s best for the team,” Zimmerman said. “So I didn’t now what kind of numbers I would put up. Obviously we’re still a long ways to go, so I still have work to do. But I’ve been happy with the way I’ve started, and hopefully I can continue that. You don’t get any awards for having, I guess, a good first two months. But, yeah, it’s been good. My body has felt great.”
Is there no part of him, given the way he’s swinging, that wants to swing more?
“I always use this analogy, it’s the Howie Kendrick analogy. Everyone said the same thing about Howie,” Zimmerman explained, referring to the former National who retired after the 2020 season. “And I’ve talked with Howie a bunch. Obviously when he was in that role, kind of a little bit before I decided to do it this way, and that’s why I’m producing because I get those days off. So it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, he should play more.’ That’s not what I signed up for.”
As of Thursday night’s rainout, the Nationals ranked ninth among all offenses with an .804 on-base-plus-slugging percentage from their first baseman. Do they rise a few spots if Zimmerman has 25 starts instead of 21, especially during Bell’s rough April? Zimmerman would argue against that point. He would say that the club is top 10 in first base production because of the balance Manager Dave Martinez has struck between his and Bell’s appearances.
Most of Washington’s lineup hasn’t clicked through 58 games. But the first base rotation is one element that has.
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