VIERA, FLA. — Ryan Zimmerman stood 30 feet away from Matt Eiden, the Washington Nationals’ assistant strength coach and, for the moment, his guinea pig of a throwing partner. It was mid-January and Zimmerman had not thrown a baseball for months, not since the shoulder surgery he underwent in November. He would find out now, in the batting cage at Nationals Park, the state of his rebuilt right arm.
Zimmerman took a step. He cocked the ball behind his ear. He thought, “Please be okay, please be okay, please be okay.” He swung his arm forward . . . and spiked the ball into the ground. The ball barely rolled to Eiden.
“It was really funny after the second one was okay,” Zimmerman said. “At first, we were just like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Zimmerman laughed about the story Friday afternoon as he fixed a tuna sandwich in the home clubhouse of Space Coast Stadium. He has not spiked another throw since in his recovery from the operation. His throwing arm now brings him optimism rather than frustration.
In a Nationals camp defined by expectations cranked to nosebleed altitude, Zimmerman, 28, possesses a modest hope. He wants to feel normal again on a baseball diamond, the way he had always felt before last year.
As he played last season through cortisone shots to numb the pain in his right shoulder, Zimmerman’s arm would not move in the way his brain told it to. His throwing motion turned into a Frankenstein monster, a series of movements patched together solely to keep him on the field. He made 12 throwing errors, reduced from a defensive whiz to a question mark.
“We feel most comfortable when we’re on the baseball field,” Zimmerman said. “To feel uncomfortable is a really bad feeling. It’s like I feel when I do public speaking. But I’m not supposed to feel like that when I’m playing baseball.”
Thursday afternoon, Manager Davey Johnson planned to have a talk with Zimmerman. He had watched old film this winter from 2006, Zimmerman’s rookie year, and he wanted Zimmerman, in the wake of offseason shoulder surgery, to return to that throwing motion. He wanted his overhand throws to zip as effortlessly as his submarine darts.
They met in Johnson’s office, and before Johnson could start to speak, Zimmerman told him his plans. He wanted a more natural motion, no more of the awkward, step-by-step mechanics brought on by his balky shoulder joint.
“I said, ‘Hallelujah,’ ” Johnson said. “He wants to get back to that natural, fluid motion coming to first. I’m excited about that. That’s the best news I’ve had this spring.”
Zimmerman’s return to a smoother throwing motion will come slowly, as he uses this spring to build strength in his shoulder. Friday, he stood in a batting cage and made 25 throws from 60 feet and 25 more from 75 feet. He could have thrown from a longer distance, he said, but in mid-February he will prioritize caution.
Johnson envisions Zimmerman appearing in his first Grapefruit League game two weeks into the schedule. Zimmerman is fine with that; he wants 50 at-bats per spring, no more and no fewer. He has yet to take batting practice, instead driving soft flips into a net because his shoulder isn’t ready for the force of a pitch. Caution is his plan. Zimmerman harbors no concern that his shoulder will prevent him from being ready opening day.
“We have no reason to rush,” Zimmerman said. “Could I throw 90 feet right now? Yeah. . . . But there’s no reason. We’ll just take our time.”
Zimmerman grows fatigued quickly when throwing; his last five throws from each distance had less zip and accuracy. But even in recovery from the November surgery, which repaired an inflamed AC joint, along with fraying in both his labrum and rotator cuff, Zimmerman feels more at ease throwing the ball than he did last year.
“A lot freer is the best way to explain it,” Zimmerman said. “Things are cleaned out. Now it’s just a matter of getting it in shape and strengthening it up again. We do that every day, just kind of slow and steady with the throwing progression. Take our time and get it back to the strength it was at before it was all jacked up.”
Zimmerman’s shoulder issues dogged him all year. He landed on the disabled list in late April — the injury, it turned out, that landed Bryce Harper in the major leagues ahead of schedule. He slumped horribly upon his return, the inflammation sapping his power until a cortisone injection in June. Zimmerman clobbered the ball like an MVP with the pain numbed, but the damage inside his shoulder — even if he couldn’t feel it — wrecked his throwing mechanics.
Each time he was asked about his shoulder, he would reply he felt fine. He wasn’t lying — the cortisone had masked the pain. He also acknowledged the logical follow-up question: Then why are you playing so poorly?
“We went through some things last year,” Zimmerman said. “They did a good job of getting me healthy enough to contribute. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t work, and it was frustrating for everyone involved, I think, myself included. Those are the things you do. The team we had last year and the way that we were playing, there was no way that I wasn’t going to play.”
Last year at this time, Zimmerman was engaged in contract negotiations that resulted in a six-year, $100 million extension. When doctors conferred on how to treat his shoulder, Zimmerman said, General Manager Mike Rizzo demanded it would not place his future at risk. Zimmerman insists the injury and the surgery never threatened his career.
So he played though it. He was not about to let the franchise push for the playoffs without him. It didn’t always look good, and it made him more uncomfortable on a baseball field than he had ever been.
“But we battled through it,” Zimmerman said. “The training staff and all those guys did a great job helping me get through. Having that in the past and being able to work now, kind of starting fresh, it’s refreshing.”
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