MIAMI — Ryan Zimmerman fielded Placido Polanco’s routine ground ball Tuesday night like he has so many others in his career at third base for the Washington Nationals. He had time to make his throw, he set himself and then watched it sail just wide of first base.
The throw pulled Adam LaRoche off the bag, though he caught it, and allowed Polanco to reach. It was his fourth throwing error of the season, and all four have come in the Nationals’ last five games.
Zimmerman, the rock upon so much of the Nationals’ success was built, underwent offseason surgery on his shoulder. He spent the winter rehabbing and much of January, February and parts of March working in a throwing program meant for him to gradually build up strength. The training staff said it may take until June before he’s back to 100 percent as far as his strength goes.
But the shoulder is not bothering him, he said. The errors are.
“Shoulder feels great, that’s why it’s so frustrating,” Zimmerman said after the Nationals’ 8-2 loss to the Miami Marlins. “Nobody’s more frustrated than me. I’m the guy out there who doesn’t want to do it more than anyone.”
In the dugout after the inning, Zimmerman approached LaRoche and shortstop Ian Desmond. Desmond has played alongside Zimmerman in the majors for parts of four seasons now. LaRoche has been watching him throw across the diamond at him for a season-plus. He asked both if they’d noticed anything recently that might be contributing to his issues.
“In a sense, it’s a confidence thing,” Desmond said. “He’s never come to me before about how to hit a homer, or how to drive in a runner from second, or how to make a diving play. So I would imagine his confidence is a little down if he’s coming to me.
“I have some things that I see, but I think he’s to the point now where it’s right there. He’s gotten 100 times better. Everything is already moving in the right direction. He makes one (bad one) and then he makes five good throws. He’s moving in the right direction. Obviously having surgery doesn’t help anything, having to take time off and rehab and try to find that slot again, but he’s on the right track. It’s going to take one clean game to get right back to where he was, and he’ll be fine.”
After each game that Zimmerman has made an error, and they’ve often cost the Nationals a run in this stretch, he has stood at his locker and fielded questions about his throwing. Sometimes he’s all but shrugged his shoulders, pointing out that errors happen to even the best players and they’re going to happen to him. Tuesday night he was reflective.
“Everything feels good,” he said. “I long toss, my arm feels strong. Everything’s good. It’s just a matter of me sticking with it and not mentally getting frustrated. Just going out there and knowing that I can do that kind of stuff. I know I can do that.”
Zimmerman is a Gold Glove winner and an All-Star. And for all of the errant throws, there are plenty of plays he makes that very few others could.
He rarely struggles when he has little time and he makes the charging, sidearm throw as good as anyone in the game. When he has time and he sets, it seems, is when he has trouble finding consistency.
On Tuesday, Dan Haren and manager Davey Johnson made a point to note that his error did give the Marlins a fourth out. And it did put a runner on base. But both said it was no reason for the inning to spiral and turn into the four-run frame it became.
“If we do what we’re capable of doing around an error that doesn’t ever happen,” Johnson said.
“I’ve got to be able to pick the guy up,” Haren added. “That’s part of baseball.”
Desmond, for one, offered a strong defense of Zimmerman for those who are quick to criticize his teammate.
“If you think this is going to be the fall of a superstar, you’ve got it completely wrong,” Desmond said. “You don’t get to the level he’s at without overcoming some things along the way. You can talk to him about growing up. He was always a little guy, never hit homers in high school or college, and all of a sudden he figured it out. And now he’s a 30-homer, 100-RBI-a-year guy. It’s just, when you run into those trials, how do you deal with it?
“I think him coming to us, he knows something’s going on. But it’s not going to derail his stardom. He’s an unbelievable talent, and he’s got to remember that. He’s got a Gold Glove in his house. He knows how to do it. He needs to get out of his own head, just like we all do. I made 40 errors a year. It’s part of the game. You have to go through that stuff. And there’s nobody I think would be able to bounce back from it more than he would. Like I said, this isn’t going to be the downfall of a superhero.”
“We’re human,” Desmond continued. “He’s an unbelievable player, but we’re all human. No one’s bigger than the game. Everyone’s been through something they’ve had to battle through, including Ryan. For so long, I think everyone in D.C. put him on this pedestal and thought he was superhuman. And he is. But at the same time, everybody has to deal with a little bit of adversity. He’s going to bounce back from it. It’s early. I guarantee you, by the time the end of the season rolls around, he’ll be making all the great plays.”
As Desmond spoke, Zimmerman quietly dressed a few locker stalls down having already addressed the media. While his teammate was offering an impassioned rebuke to Zimmerman’s critics, fervently standing up for his third baseman, Zimmerman was more pensive. He turned his eyes toward tomorrow, and the next game, vowing it would improve.
“It can’t get any worse,” Zimmerman said, asked if he thought things would improve with time and repetitions.
“I’m working on it. I’m doing everything I can to make those plays and help this team. Unfortunately, right now, I’ve made a few errors. But I’ll go back out there tomorrow and hope every ball’s hit my way. I’ll go right back at it.”