Jul 1, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Ryan Zimmerman had taken his position at third base 1,119 previous times in the big leagues, so his trot from the Nationals dugout across the infield Monday evening should have been the epitome of routine.
This, however, wasn’t like any of the previous occasions. This was the first time Zimmerman played third base since leaving his natural position for left field upon returning from the disabled list four weeks ago, a move necessitated by his longstanding shoulder woes. And so, this was no ordinary trot out to the hot corner.
“It was different,” he said. “But I’ve played there quite a bit. I took some balls there the last week or so to get ready for it. It’s obviously different than left field, but not too bad.”
Not too bad, indeed. The Rockies hit only three balls to third base during Monday’s game — one of them a routine pop-up — but Zimmerman handled them all flawlessly and even showed off some of the skills that earned him a Gold Glove award five years ago.
He charged in and made a barehanded scoop of Brandon Barnes’ bunt in the top of the fifth, his subsequent throw strong and right on the money, just a split-second too late after the perfectly placed dribbler.
Then two innings later, Zimmerman made the kind of instinctual and gifted play that earned him his sterling defensive reputation in the first place. Lunging to his right to snag Charlie Blackmon’s low liner, he then fired all the way across the diamond while falling backward, getting the ball to Adam LaRoche before Corey Dickerson could get back to first base, completing an inning-ending double play that left the Nationals Park crowd of 33,660 roaring with approval.
“I kind of peeked a little bit once I caught it,” he said. “It’s a tough read for [Dickerson] because if it short-hops me, obviously he’s got to get to second base. But, yeah, I thought I had a good chance.”
“That’s kind of a soft liner off the end,” said manager Matt Williams, himself a former Gold Glove third baseman. “And he ranged to his right to catch it and then really didn’t have time to get up. So he spun as he was getting up and threw it over there, on the money. It was a good play.”
This was by no means confirmation of Zimmerman’s ability to play an adequate third base the rest of the season. He didn’t need to make any of the routine throws that have caused him so much trouble in the recent past. One solid game in the field doesn’t exorcise demons that have built up over the course of years.
But it was confirmation that Williams’ decision to move Zimmerman back to third base upon Bryce Harper’s return from the DL was worth the risk. The Nats will find out for sure over the coming days and weeks whether this can work long-term or not, but this game offered no reason to now abort the plan altogether.
“He’s a good third baseman,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “There’s no doubt about that. And obviously we’re in a very good situation with Anthony [Rendon] being able to play third and second at the level he does, and Zim to be able to play left and third at the level he does. I know he’s new to left field. But he did a great job for us out there, and I’m assuming that’s not going to be the last time we see him out there.”
No, as Williams said prior to Monday’s game, Zimmerman will bounce around three positions — third base, first base, left field — to some extent the rest of this season. It may not be his preferred scenario, but he once again said he (and others) are willing to do whatever is asked, whether it means playing multiple positions or taking more days off.
“Like I’ve said all along … all of the guys in here are going to do whatever it takes to win,” Zimmerman said. “Honestly, days off are nice sometimes even if you don’t want them. If we want to continue to win games and do what we think we should do, those days off now might help you later in the season when we really need them. It’s going to be a tough job for Matt, but I think it’s a good problem to have too many players and not enough spots. We’ll see. Usually things like that work themselves out, but as long as we keep winning I think everything will be fine.”
The manner in which Zimmerman has dealt with this entire situation hasn’t been lost on teammates.
“He says it all the time: The window for opportunity here to win the World Series is not going to be open forever,” Desmond said. “And his willingness, and everybody else’s willingness, to move throughout the lineup and to play different positions, that’s the kind of selflessness we need to get to the next level.”
Desmond was asked if he believes others in the Nationals’ clubhouse will be as willing as Zimmerman to shed their egos for the greater good.
His reponse: “Well, when the cornerstone of your organization accepts it and does it, it makes it hard for anybody else not to.”
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