Jul 7, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
Ryan Zimmerman is plenty used to being in the middle of things during the final key moments of a ballgame. This is, after all, a guy with nine career walk-off homers on his ledger.
So the fact Zimmerman delivered what proved to be the game-winning hit yesterday for a Nationals club that eked out a 2-1 victory over the Cubs wasn’t all that surprising.
The fact he was back at third base for the ninth inning and was entrusted by manager Matt Williams to make two on-target throws across the diamond — while Anthony Rendon remained at second base and Danny Espinosa remained on the bench — was a surprise.
“Like I said before, Anthony at third and Danny at second is our best defensive alignment,” Zimmerman said. “I have no problem saying that, and O think there are going to be times when [Williams] does that and that gives us the best chance to win late in the game with a couple-run lead.”
Only four days earlier, Williams had done exactly that. With the Nationals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the eighth, Zimmerman was pulled for defensive purposes, with Rendon shifting to third base and Espinosa inserted off the bench.
So, what was the difference this time around?
“His arm feels really good, and he feels good,” Williams said. “So without getting into too much detail about the other day, there’s no difference.”
The insinuation there by Williams was that Zimmerman’s shoulder was bothering him Wednesday when he was subbed out, but that the longstanding condition wasn’t as much of a problem Sunday. Zimmerman, though, said his arm felt no different this time than it did before and that the two hadn’t discussed anything prior to the decision to leave him in.
“No, we don’t talk about it,” Zimmerman said. “He either does it or doesn’t. He makes the decisions. I don’t really lobby for anything either way. I think whatever he wants, and whatever he thinks gives us the best chance to win, that’s his job. And I think all of us in here respect that.”
Wouldn’t you know it but the first batter of the ninth inning sent a groundball Zimmerman’s way. He made the play and then threw to first base for the inning’s first out. Two batters later, he did it again, zipping a sidearm throw across the diamond to end the game.
So, if you’ve lost track, that’s now 17 defensive chances Zimmerman has had at third base in the last week, since he returned to the position. And he’s 17-for-17 in making the plays, including 12 on-target throws. Yes, that’s a 1.000 fielding percentage.
That’s not nearly enough of a sample size to suggest the Nationals are in the clear the rest of the season with Zimmerman at the hot corner. But it is enough to suggest he has done much better than expected since returning one week ago.
Here’s the surprising domino effect of it all: Despite conventional wisdom that would suggest Zimmerman is more likely to succeed at the plate while playing the less-demanding left field, his offensive numbers are far better when he plays third base.
During these six games, Zimmerman is hitting .524 (11-for-21) with a 1.274 OPS. Compare those to his numbers in 25 games as an outfielder (.198 average, 590 OPS) and it certainly appears the 29-year-old is more comfortable now than he was a week ago.
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