VIERA, Fla. — Friday morning, as the sun darted between the clouds over Space Coast Stadium, Ryan Zimmerman stood on the field and played catch. He made 25 throws about 60 feet from his partner and then 25 more from about 75 feet.
He made the throws without significant pain and without the absence of feeling that he dealt with for much of the 2012 season as he staved off pain with cortisone shots.
He made the throws feeling free and unrestricted. Feeling natural.
And as the Nationals’ third baseman prepares for the 2013 season, natural is all he wants to feel when he cocks his arm back to make a throw across the diamond.
“So, no more seven-part throwing motion?” a reporter asked Zimmerman as he discussed the improvements he felt after October arthroscopic surgery to clean out his acromioclavicular joint.
“No,” Zimmerman said, laughing a bit. “Let’s not.”
When Zimmerman reported to camp on Thursday he popped his head into manager Davey Johnson’s office and told him exactly that. For the manager, who, like everyone, watched the third baseman go through each step of that motion last season and occasionally make awkward-looking throws that resulted in errors, he wanted to see Zimmerman make the set throw as easily as he can make the bang-bang play.
“Before I could say that to him he said ‘I want to have a regular throwing motion to first. I don’t want to set up, all this stuff,’” Johnson recalled. “I said ‘Hallelujah.’”
“That’s the best news I’ve had this spring.”
Zimmerman’s throwing motion has been a talking point in the organization for some time. After he underwent surgery to repair an abdominal tear in 2011, the Nationals’ instructors worked with him to revamp the motion and incorporate his legs more. But last year it was more about survival than anything. “Duct-taping” the problem, as he put it.
“We went through some things last year,” Zimmerman said, the most well-known of which was the four cortisone shots administered to the AC joint area over the course of the season. “They did a good job of getting me healthy enough to contribute. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t work and it was frustrating for everyone involved, I think, myself included. But those are the things that you do. With the team that we had last year and the way that we were playing there was no way that I wasn’t going to play.
“The frustrating thing was I couldn’t feel pain. I couldn’t function like I wanted to. My brain was telling me to do something and obviously I couldn’t do it physically. That was the most frustrating part because nothing hurt, so when you guys would ask me if it hurt, I’d say ‘No,’ and you guys probably thought ‘Then why are you so bad?’ But we made it through.”
Zimmerman’s still in the process of regaining strength in his shoulder, a process that began two days after surgery when he had his first therapy session. He knows he’s not strong enough yet, feeling himself tire at the end of throwing sessions. But he’s been swinging a bat and hitting balls tossed underhand to him by a coach.
He won’t play in spring training games right away as he continues the rehab and strengthening process, but he often says he doesn’t need more than 50 at-bats in the spring to feel ready for the season, and he sees no stumbling blocks to him being 100 percent healthy by Opening Day.
Johnson agreed that Zimmerman will not play in spring training games immediately but felt that even if he missed the first two weeks he’d still be able to get him enough at-bats to prepare normally for the season.
For now, that’s all Zimmerman wants.
“I think we feel most comfortable when we’re on the baseball field,” he said. “To feel uncomfortable is a really bad feeling. It’s like I feel when I do public speaking. But I’m not supposed to feel like that when I’m playing baseball.
“But when you’re trying to just get back in front of 45,000-50,000 people, when those games mean a lot — not just to me, but to everyone else in this room. That was the hardest thing. It was a mental experience, I guess. I’m a better person because of it. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it.”