NEW YORK — For years, Ryan Zimmerman never needed to overcome a baseball season. He drew comparisons to Brooks Robinson, clobbered around 25 homers a year and earned a $100 million contract. He had nothing to endure. He existed easily in a hard game, until shoulder surgery led to this season. His throwing mechanics broke down, his bat lost power and his confidence eroded. He wondered at one point if he may need to switch to first base. “A lot of bad things creep in there,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman discovered this season that he can persevere. Wednesday night, he lifted the Washington Nationals to a 3-0 victory over the New York Mets. As Dan Haren struck out eight and allowed only one hit over six innings, Zimmerman blasted a solo homer and made two sparkling plays at third base. Like the team he represents, Zimmerman’s underwhelming season has roared suddenly to life.
On Sept. 1, Zimmerman had 15 home runs. He insisted a hot stretch would surface and his power would return. In the past nine games, he has smashed seven homers, bringing his total to 22. His defense has turned from liability to solid. It may not be a coincidence the dual improvements coincided.
“I’ve always been taught to separate” fielding and hitting, Zimmerman said. “But I think baseball is contagious. I don’t know if it was me trying to do more to make up mistakes I made defensively. It’s not fun to go out there and make errors and do things to hurt the team. It’s just nice to be able to go out and play baseball again.”
The Nationals, having won 22 of 31 games, remain on the edge of the playoff chase, six games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the National League’s second wild-card spot with 17 to play. “I don't know how many more games we can lose,” Haren said. “I know [Jayson] Werth was doing some math, but that math keeps getting smaller and smaller.”
Zimmerman watched from the bench as Rafael Soriano collected his 41st save because a muscle in his back tightened up, the product of getting hit by a ball as he slid into second on a steal. Zimmerman said he will be fine Thursday, when he will continue a season that included the lowest depths of his career and will end, roughly, in the same place most of his years end.
“If you don't have perseverance, you get knocked down and you get humbled,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He's been a prime example of that. That's not always easy to find in a $100 million player. Usually, those guys have already been through their fair share of bumps and bruises. For Zim, he's been blessed and fortunate to really have never had any. … It's hard to kind of brush that stuff off and he's done a great job of it. That's why he's a cornerstone of the organization.”
Haren outdueled promising right-hander Zach Wheeler for most of the night, and the Nationals opened up the game only when Anthony Rendon cracked a two-run double in the eighth. Wheeler sliced through the Nationals’ lineup until Zimmerman walked to the plate to lead off the sixth inning.
Wheeler froze Zimmerman with a first-pitch slider over the plate, and the buzzed a fastball over the corner for strike two. Wheeler tried to finish Zimmerman off with another slider, but it hung over the plate. Zimmerman smashed it to left field. He had launched the 175th homer of his career, and just the fifth on an 0-2 pitch. The Nationals led, 1-0.
Before he gave the Nationals their first run, Zimmerman helped keep the Mets scoreless. Leading off the third, Ruben Tejada ripped a sharp one-hopper down the third base line. Zimmerman dove to his right, backhanded the ball and hopped to his feet. He faced the kind of throw that, earlier in the season, gave him the most trouble. Standing flat-footed, he had to rely on arm strength. He reared and fired overhand, and the ball hissed into first baseman Adam LaRoche’s mitt.
“I think I still have a ways to go,” Zimmerman said. “But where I was at the beginning of the year to where I am now is obviously a lot better.”
In the fifth, Travis d’Arnaud nicked a dribbler down the third base line. Zimmerman charged, stutter-stepped and snatched the ball with his bare hand. On the run, he slung the ball from
his knees a low angle to LaRoche, another highlight-reel play.
“We ain't moving him to first, if that's what you're thinking, all right?” Johnson said.
Zimmerman’s defense supported Haren as he rebounded from an abysmal stretch. In his previous two starts, which came against the Mets and Miami Marlins, Haren failed to reach the fourth inning. Wednesday night, Haren did not allow a hit for the first three innings, stabilizing himself against a batting order that included a 3-4-5 of Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda and Josh Satin. “Seen better lineups in the Grapefruit League,” one NL scout said.
Lagares led off the fourth with a single, and Haren returned to shutting down the Mets. Between starts, Haren had tinkered with the grip of his splitter and practiced throwing it like a fastball rather than guiding it. As he used the splitter as a strikeout pitch, Haren retired nine straight hitters, whiffing four and showing no sign of wear. But when his spot in the order came up in the top of the seventh, Johnson pulled him and sent Steve Lombardozzi to pinch-hit.
“I'm not going to let him lose that game after pitching that great for six innings,” Johnson said.
Johnson told Haren he did not want to push him on an unseasonably hot and humid night. Also, two left-handed hitters loomed in the next inning for the Mets.
“I think the truth of it is, I lost his confidence a little bit after the last two games,” Haren said. “When I was rolling there in July and August, I told him when I wanted to come out and if I wanted to stay in. I lost his confidence a little bit, and I get it. He thought that was enough, and I'll go with him. Now, maybe I gained it back a little and next start maybe I can tell him I feel good enough to go for another one.”