As the late-summer lull settles in and the baseball days roll by, unremarkable to comfortable first-place teams like the Washington Nationals, trends may warrant more notice than moments. Whether recently slumping Ryan Zimmerman regains his earlier form is one such trend.
In Wednesday night’s 10-1 win over the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park, Zimmerman signaled a reemergence as strongly as a man can in one night of baseball. Sample size is everything, and even the two-homer, 4-for-4 night he compiled is not enough to declare him back in rhythm. But it certainly provides some hope.
“It’s one of those things where you struggle for a while and you really don’t know what happens. Something just happens,” Zimmerman said. “It’s one game — but it’s definitely better than what’s been going on over the last couple weeks.”
Month by month, Zimmerman’s numbers shrank, from an unsustainable .420 average in April, to .319 in May, .283 in June, .234 in July, and — at least at the beginning of Wednesday’s game — .087 in August. By the end of the day, that August average was .222.
So much of the Nationals’ success this season is built around the heart of their batting order, the one Zimmerman transformed with his storybook resurgence. When Zimmerman is producing, the Nationals have a loaded middle of the order that alternates left and right — an opposing manager’s late-game nightmare.
But as Zimmerman skidded — .195 with five homers in the second half entering Wednesday — that middle of the order looked less potent.
Wednesday, Zimmerman fell behind Marlins left-hander Adam Conley 0-2 in his first at-bat. Then Conley hung a slider. Zimmerman hit it out to left-center and in doing so passed Marlins bench coach Tim Wallach for the Expos/Nationals franchise lead in RBI, earning a brief curtain call.
When hitters hit 0-2 sliders like that one, it is often more a product of the pitch than the swing. In that count, hitters are ready for anything — swinging if it’s close — so they tend to hit the rare fat 0-2 pitch hard. For those looking for signs that Zimmerman might reverse his downward trend, a swing like that does not provide much evidence either way.
“For me, just getting a hit my first at-bat [helped],” Zimmerman said. “It’s been a rough 10 days, two weeks . . . whatever.”
The swing Zimmerman took an inning later, at a 2-2 fastball he drove to right-center for a double, looked more like a man nearly ready to surge. If launch angle were everything, that wouldn’t have been a hit. But Zimmerman hit the ball hard and it hurtled into the gap, far enough that Bryce Harper could score from first.
Zimmerman’s production ripples throughout the lineup, particularly to Harper, who gets more pitches to hit when Zimmerman is looming to drive him home. On Wednesday, Harper hit an opposite-field single in the third. Then he bunted for a base hit in the fifth. Both times, Zimmerman drove him home, and the production center of the Nationals lineup shifted down a spot for the evening. By that time, Zimmerman needed only a triple for the cycle.
“Something catastrophic would’ve had to happen for me to get a triple,” Zimmerman said. “Homers are way cooler than triples, anyway.”
As important as Zimmerman’s trajectory will be a few months from now, Howie Kendrick’s is looking more and more likely to be impactful, too. He went 3 for 4 Wednesday, driving in three runs to push his Nationals hitting record to 13 for 34 (.382).
If Zimmerman is the transformative piece of the Nationals lineup, and Kendrick is turning into one, Gio Gonzalez makes a similar difference in the rotation.
When Stephen Strasburg’s status changed to “uncertain,” Gonzalez’s status uprgaded to “crucial,” and he has pitched like a man ready for the challenge. In his last outing, also against the Marlins, he carried a no-hitter into the ninth. Wednesday, two days after the birth of his second child, in the midst of what has therefore been a whirlwind week, Gonzalez threw seven innings of one-run ball, struck out six and walked none.
By the time he completed a scoreless second inning, Gonzalez — not Max Scherzer or Strasburg — owned the longest scoreless streak of any Nationals starter this season, 16 innings. That streak ended at 17 when the Marlins scored a run in the fourth, but Gonzalez did not give them more. If Gonzalez continues to pitch like he has lately as August and September slide away, he could change the Nationals’ look entirely in October.
So could Zimmerman, who came to bat for the final time in the seventh. If his first two-strike swing of the evening didn’t necessarily foretell a hot streak, the five two-strike pitches he fouled off in the seventh provided sturdier evidence.
On the 11th pitch of that at-bat, Zimmerman homered again, a line drive to right field, a patented Zimmerman shot. He has 26 homers now, matching the second-highest total of his career. He also has 81 RBI. He had not had more than 79 since 2012.
“I’m usually hitting .240,” Zimmerman said with a wry grin. “So I’m ahead of the game this year.”
If he can stay that way through the final two months of the season, the Nationals might just reach October with their most potent offense yet.
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