With two diving plays from Ryan Zimmerman and one powerful swing of his bat, these Washington Nationals showed how different they already are from last year’s version. Those Nationals led the National League in wins and claimed a division title despite Zimmerman missing more than 100 games to injury and being relegated to a bench role in the playoffs.
Healthy and at a new position that suits him, Zimmerman offered a glimpse of what the club was missing in 2014.
His two-run home run in the first off New York Mets starter Jacob deGrom accounted for the Nationals’ offense, and he led a strong defensive showing with two slick plays at first base, both at critical moments, in a 2-1 win.
With a depleted lineup, the Nationals need Zimmerman at his best.
“He’s a 30 and 100 guy definitely,” Bryce Harper said, referring to home run and RBI benchmarks typical of middle-of-the-lineup hitters. “That’s something we missed all of last year almost. So definitely getting him back in the lineup and put a good swing on that ball and put us ahead 2-0, that was a game-changer. We won the ballgame because of that.”
In a game delayed 56 minutes by rain that barely came, Jordan Zimmermann fired six strong innings in his first start of the season, weathering an unsteady beginning.
A new-look bullpen — Craig Stammen in the seventh inning, Blake Treinen with an electric eighth — held the lead, and closer Drew Storen earned his first save.
After 10 years at third base, Zimmerman is in his first season at first. The same reflexes that helped him win a Gold Glove at third will serve him well across the diamond. His hands and feet were not a problem at third; it was his throwing. And since spring training, Zimmerman again has shown his athleticism and range.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable over there the more he plays,” Manager Matt Williams said.
With two men on and only one out in the second inning, Zimmerman charged and made a full-body-outstretched diving catch of deGrom’s popped bunt attempt.
“Most times they tell you to bunt, with a guy on first and second, you usually bunt the ball to third base,” Zimmerman said. “I guess they were trying to pick on me, which I can’t blame them. It was just weird to see them bunt it that way.”
In the eighth inning, as the Nationals clinged to a one-run lead, Zimmerman made a diving play to his right and flipped the ball to Treinen for an out. The two also combined on a lineout double play — started by a great stab from Treinen — to end the inning.
“Phenomenal,” Treinen said. “[Zimmerman’s] play hasn’t changed. He’s making highlight-reel plays and just doing an unbelievable job. ”
Zimmerman jump-started the Nationals’ offense, crushing a misplaced fastball from deGrom into the seats in left in the first inning.
Other than Zimmerman’s home run, Harper again was a bright spot in a meager lineup. Harper swung ferociously in his first at-bat against deGrom to strike out.
But in his next two at-bats, he took more calculated approaches. After Yunel Escobar walked ahead of him, Harper waited on an outside curveball from deGrom, a calmer swing smacking a soft single to right field. In the fifth, he flicked an outside fastball to left field for a single.
“It’s important for him to do that,” Williams said. “As you get older, you understand that pitches will dictate what you can do with them. When you’re young and strong like Bryce, he’s hit that ball down and away over the left-field fence sometimes. But the frequency in which he does it is not conducive to having a high average. If he can hit like he’s hitting, then home runs will come. Doubles will come.”
Given the absence of Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth from the lineup, offense will come at a premium early in the season.
Such was the case Wednesday, when Zimmerman was the only player who delivered a key hit. The Nationals produced 10 base runners.
“We keep presenting ourselves those opportunities, we’re going to come through,” Williams said. “We want to set that up as many times as we can to put pressure on the other team, put pressure on the defense.”
With little margin for error, Zimmermann escaped his biggest jam in the second with the gutsy pitching the Nationals have come to expect. With one out, Zimmermann gave up three straight singles and a run. And after Zimmerman’s diving play on deGrom’s bunt, Zimmermann gave up a swinging bunt single to Wilmer Flores, loading the bases for Curtis Granderson.
With the count full, Zimmermann went with a slider high and outside. Granderson didn’t offer, and home plate umpire Mike Everitt called the outside pitch a strike. Granderson, who was already headed toward first base, stopped dead in his tracks.
“I knew he was sitting fastball, 3-2 count, and I figured if I get a slider anywhere close, he’s going to probably punch out,” Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann needed 42 pitches to complete the first two innings. He fired only 49 more over the next four innings. After six innings and 91 pitches, he yielded the mound to Stammen, who tossed a scoreless seventh. Treinen fired 98-mph fastballs with ease in the scoreless eighth. And Storen notched his first save of the season with a perfect ninth.
“Being able to have the pitching staff that we do, if we get them two, three, four runs, it’s gonna be okay with us,” Harper said.