ATLANTA — Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker wanted Ryan Zimmerman to begin anew Saturday evening, to erase preexisting numbers from his mind and consider the next 40 games a season separate from his first 80. Zimmerman’s injuries had healed. His name had been cleared. Activated before Saturday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals first baseman finally could just play, unburdened by everything else.
The first pitch Zimmerman saw in his first game back was a fastball from Braves rookie Tyrell Jenkins. It was 92 mph, up in the zone. The first pitch Zimmerman saw flew over the left field fence, 111 mph off the bat, 394 feet from home plate — a dramatic way to push the reset button Baker hoped Zimmerman would hit.
“I didn’t think he would hit it that quick, first pitch he saw,” Baker said. “If it was that easy, I would have said it a long time ago.”
The third pitch Zimmerman saw was a change-up. He hit that one 110 mph to left field for a single. That one was a less memorable swing than his first, though it came in the most impressive inning the Nationals offense has compiled all season.
Zimmerman’s single was one of nine hits the Nationals got in that fourth inning — a team record. They scored eight runs — a season high. At one point they had eight hits in a row.
“I don’t think I’ve seen eight hits in a row, maybe since the days when the Pirates were the lumber company,” Baker said. “I’m just glad we’re doing some hitting.”
By the end of it all, they had turned a two-run deficit into a six-run lead, and they added enough to absorb some more late-inning defensive and bullpen misadventures on their way to an 11-9 win.
With Zimmerman hitting seventh for the fifth time in nearly 1,400 career games, with Bryce Harper regaining his old form, with Trea Turner creating at the top, the Nationals’ lineup felt as deep as it has all season. In that fourth inning, it looked it.
Twelve batters came to the plate, and 10 reached base. Daniel Murphy led off the frame with a home run and added a single before it was over. Harper followed with a walk and stole second. He singled later. Anthony Rendon, Zimmerman, Wilmer Difo — and even Max Scherzer, who had been given the bunt sign and seized his opportunity with a single to right — all hit, too.
“Soon as I got the sign I was like ‘heck ya, let’s go!’ ” Scherzer said. “Just help keep that line moving as the hitters always say.”
The line ended with Wilson Ramos, who lined out to right, then grounded into a double play, accounting for all three outs in the record-setting inning. Somebody had to.
Ramos had other things to worry about, like helping Scherzer settle into a game he started without as much command of his fastball as he might have liked.
He did well enough to work through the sixth inning and into the seventh. By that time, he had thrown 101 pitches and allowed four runs on six hits, three walks and six strikeouts.
The Braves got two more against Matt Belisle and Shawn Kelley in the eighth, aided by an error by Difo and another double play not turned. Koda Glover could not finish off the ninth without the Braves rallying, which meant Mark Melancon had to come in for the final out.
A night after the Nationals let a five-run lead get away, they threatened to let a six-run lead escape them, too.
“You got to be aware of the next series after Colorado, because [the Rockies and Coors Field] beat your bullpen up even if you beat them,” Baker said. “So I’m not that concerned about [the bullpen] . . . we knew this stretch would be tough. We also knew we were going to have to outscore them.”
Scherzer finished with two hits. Murphy finished with three hits including his 23rd homer of the season. Harper finished 2 for 4 with a walk and is now 10 for 25 (.400) since returning from his neck trouble. Rendon finished with 4 for 5 with a double, and is hitting .336 with 12 doubles and six homers since Jul 16.
“Our offense, the lineup is so long, it’s really almost like an American League lineup,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t really have a break.”
Zimmerman certainly did not provide one Saturday night. The fifth pitch he saw since returning from the disabled list, thrown his way by Ryan Weber in the sixth inning, was a curveball.
He hit that one to left field for a single, too, his third hit of the night in three tries. He added a sacrifice fly in the ninth, one that nearly carried out to dead center, to finish with two RBI.
“To come back here and get off to a good start, I think that was really positive for me,” Zimmerman said.”
Even when healthy, Zimmerman did not have many nights like that earlier this season. At the time he went on the disabled list with a strained left rib cage just before the all-star break, he was hitting .221 with a .284 on-base percentage.
He returned for six games before being hit on the wrist with a pitch by Giants closer Santiago Casilla on July 31, a blow that forced him to the disabled list retroactive to August 1. At that time, he was hitting .222 with a .284 on-base percentage.
Maybe it’s the beard he grew over the last few weeks, an unprecedented addition to his characteristically clean-cut look.
Maybe the time off refreshed him and his swing, one full of moving parts that take time to synchronize. Maybe he, like so many of his teammates, just had a good night against a rookie starter and tired bullpen.
Whatever it was, if the season started today, Zimmerman would be hitting .750 - and that’s exactly how his manager wants him to look at it.