Zimmerman returns as old self despite new position in Nats' win

Zimmerman returns as old self despite new position in Nats' win
June 3, 2014, 11:45 pm
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Seeing Ryan Zimmerman trot out to left field moments before the Nationals took on the Phillies Tuesday night was certainly an odd sight for those who have watched the two-time Silver Slugger over the years.

Playing his first MLB game ever in the outfield - after 1,120 professional games as an infielder - Zimmerman may have looked out of place to the 25,291 in attendance and to those watching on television.

For all the focus on how he would settle into his new role, however, Zimmerman reminded us of something perhaps we had overlooked: the guy can flat out hit.

Zimmerman wasted no time at the plate in Tuesday night's 7-0 win over the Phillies, crushing a double down the left field line in his first at-bat. He took one pitch, then put a heck of a swing on a 90 mile per hour fastball from David Buchanon.

Zimmerman finished 2-for-4 on the night with two doubles and an RBI, picking up right where he left off when he fractured his right thumb in a game against the Braves on April 12.

Even after a seven-week absence, he is still wielding a hot bat. Zimmerman explained why his timing has returned so quickly after the win.

"I have just been fortunate enough to get a lot of at-bats at a young age, learn my swing and learn which pitches I can handle and which ones I can't," he said.

"Just not trying to do too much when you first come up. People try to make up for the time that they've lost, if you're trying to do that then you're going to dig yourself into a hole. You just gotta stay within yourself and trust what you've done for years."

Manager Matt Williams gave his theory on why Zimmerman can adjust smoothly after coming off the DL.

"He hits the ball the other way so well, so he can stay on a pitch, that’s his natural stroke. So it happens quickly for him, quicker than most, because he can do what he did tonight – get a two-strike pitch and hit it down the right field line. I think that’s the biggest thing for him – he just stays on the ball really well."

Zimmerman's second double was in the fifth inning. He went the other way on a slider with two outs, sailing a line drive over the head of Phillies right fielder Marlon Byrd. The hit brought home Denard Span and put the Nats up 4-0.

The Nationals scored seven total runs against a reeling Phillies team, a good indication for their offense moving forward. After recording 19 runs through two games against the Rangers over the weekend, their bats fell cold in a 2-0 loss at the hand of Yu Darvish on Sunday. Perhaps this win reaffirms they are beginning to turn a corner now as they near full-strength.

Putting Zimmerman back in the mix leaves only Bryce Harper out of their Opening Day lineup. Injuries caught up to the Nationals in May as they finished third from the bottom of MLB in runs scored. Now with almost everybody back, their lineup stacks up quite favorably no matter their opponent on a given night.

"You got a guy like Ian [Desmond] hitting seventh with 11 home runs. We have a talented team, we just have to get healthy," Zimmerman said.

"Every team goes through injuries in the year, so it's not an excuse, I don't think we'd ever use it as that. But it's always more fun when you have the guys in your lineup that - I wouldn't say are supposed to be there - but slated to start there at the beginning of the year."

Now, for the defense. Only twice was Zimmerman tested in left field, and both times he caught the flyballs that were hit to him.

The first came in the top of the fourth inning with Chase Utley batting against starter Jordan Zimmermann. Utley lofted a low flyball to left that forced Zimmerman to charge in towards the infield. He caught it on the run in full stride and never took an awkward step in the process.

Zimmerman looked natural enough on the play to impress Span, who knows a thing about playing sound defense himself.

"Honestly, I wasn't expecting him to close on it as fast as he did," Span said. "I thought if he was going to catch it maybe he would have to slide or dive. I kind of was looking at the ball with keeping him in my peripheral and all of a sudden I just saw him close on the ball.

"It was pretty impressive. I think after the inning I told Tony [Tarasco] 'that was pretty good.' Especially for his first game out there, going after a ball like that."

Span has improved on offense recently as the team has seen players return from the disabled list. With Zimmerman back, he now hits leadoff in a pretty deep order.

"It just gives headaches for the other team," Span said. "You got Jayson [Werth] and [Wilson] Ramos and [Adam] LaRoche and you're adding Z back in the lineup, it just makes the lineup a whole lot deeper and it doesn't give the other pitchers a break."

At some point Zimmerman will be presented bigger challenges defensively in left field, a position he is essentially learning on the job. The mistakes will happen eventually. But for a first crack it it, Zimmerman fared well, and there's no questioning his impact on the Nationals' lineup.

"We saw tonight what he can do offensively," Williams said. "It’s nice to be able to have it the way that we wanted to have it initially. We’re still missing a guy, but it was good."