Mar 17, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
It lasted all of two innings, and during that time only one baseball was hit in his general direction, but Ryan Zimmerman’s brief stint at first base Sunday during the Nationals’ 2-1 exhibition loss to the Tigers in Viera was significant if for no other reason than the fact it happened at all.
For several years, the notion of Zimmerman as a first baseman has been floated around, but it had always been theoretical only, never reality. Then came the revelation this winter that new Nationals manager Matt Williams had asked Zimmerman if he’d be willing to take a crack at the position, just in case he was needed on the other side of the diamond a few times in 2014.
Zimmerman, a third baseman throughout his professional career aside from eight games at shortstop in 2005 (only one of them in the majors), agreed to give it a shot and over the last couple weeks began taking some extra work at first base before games in Florida.
And then came the top of the sixth inning Sunday at Space Coast Stadium. Instead of returning to his usual position, Zimmerman trotted over to first base, wearing a much larger glove than anyone had ever seen him don.
And sure enough, within minutes a ball was headed his way on anything but a routine play for a guy with zero experience at the position in his life to that point. Don Kelly rapped a grounder to Zimmerman’s right, his broken bat flying down the line as well. Zimmerman, who had been holding a runner on first, made the clean scoop and turned as if to throw to second base, perhaps thinking he had a shot at a 3-6-3 double play.
Just one problem: The ball squirted out of his over-sized mitt during the exchange. Zimmerman could only retrieve it and step on first base, recording the easy out but failing to get the lead runner or attempt the double play.
“Just getting used to the bigger glove,” he told reporters afterward, and how can anyone fault him considering the situation.
There’s still plenty more about first base for Zimmerman to get used to, and it will continue to be an ongoing process for the 29-year-old. He’ll probably appear several more times there over the final two weeks of camp, perhaps starting a game at some point.
The idea, as it always has been, is for Zimmerman to make about 10-to-15 starts at first base, giving Adam LaRoche days off against tough left-handers. That could, in theory, lead to a full-time position switch, whether later this season, next season or beyond.
Whether the Nationals follow through with that plan remains to be seen. It depends on Zimmerman’s comfort level at first base. It depends on LaRoche’s performance throughout the season. It depends on what other options Williams has off his bench. And, of course, it depends on Zimmerman’s defensive performance at third base.
There’s still time for that to all sort itself out. But the foundation began to be laid Sunday. It may have lasted all of two innings, but the first two innings of Ryan Zimmerman’s career at first base could prove mighty significant when it’s all said and done.
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