With Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list until at least April 24th, Nationals fans can expect a steady diet of Jerry Hairston Jr., Alex Cora and Michael Morse at third base.
The Nationals called up catcher Jesus Flores from Triple-A Syracuse to replace Zimmerman on the roster, an plan to use Flores mostly as a pinch-hitter.
“It’s always frustrating not to be able to go out and play with these guys,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the hardest thing to be able to do is sit and watch. I was off to a good start, I think the team was off to a good start… We’ve been playing good baseball. We have a really good team, a fun team to play on, so it’s going to be tough watching and not being able to compete with these guys.”
Zimmerman will refrain from doing almost anything for the next four or five days before being evaluated to see when he might be able to start strengthening the abdominal area he strained.
Hairston, Cora and Morse have combined to play just 75 games at third base in their respective careers. Hairston, who got the start there Tuesday night, is the most experienced there with 55 games under his belt. Cora has played just 12, Morse eight.
But the Nationals felt confident enough that they had the personnel to play there in Zimmerman’s absence — which could be the minimum 15 days but could also be longer.
Cora, who has primarily been a second baseman and shortstop in the major leagues, purposefully took extra grounders at third during the spring and got into a few spring training games there as well. Cora played third on Sunday and admitted that if he’d been asked to play there without that spring work, he wouldn’t have felt very confident at the position, but he does now.
“It’s a cage,” Cora said. “(As a middle infielder) you’re so used to going to your right and left and have time to react and move your feet and get around the ball and stuff. All of a sudden, you’re at third and it’s just a reaction play… early in my career when I did it, every time they fouled a ball I took like two steps to my right and I’m like, where are you going?”
The playing time could be pretty evenly divided between Hairston, Cora and Morse, provided that Laynce Nix can do a passable job filling in for Morse in left field — and as long as first baseman Adam LaRoche, himself nursing shoulder and groin injuries, also doesn’t need time off. Morse is the team’s backup first baseman, too.
“I think the guys we acquired this winter, this is the type of thing that will help you justify why you do it,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “You’re not going to replace a Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup totally. It does take a little of the sting out of it having a left-handed hitter like Nix who, when he’s going good, he can drive some balls in the gap himself.”
There are certainly a lot of moving parts in the Nationals current lineup — pinch-hitting specialist Matt Stairs, for example, got the start at first base Tuesday night, batting cleanup — but without Zimmerman the Nationals decided to make a move they felt gave them flexibility with an already versatile lineup.
It does, however, limit the Nationals ability to replace Rick Ankiel in center field with Hairston against left-handers, as was said to be the plan when the team broke camp. They faced their first left-handed pitcher of the season on Saturday in New York and both Ankiel and Hairston were in the lineup at center and left field, respectively.
“I’m not locked in that Ankiel is not going to play against lefties too,” Riggleman said. “I have no qualms about playing Ankiel against left-handers. The way players play will determine how much you can play them against lefties or righties against righties. I’m certainly looking at it as he’s going to be fine… It allows us to put the right-handed bat somewhere else and that could be third base.”