As Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson unpacked Sunday afternoon’s 11-7 victory over the San Diego Padres, he talked glowingly about the at-bats he was seeing of late from his team. His offense, dormant with bursts of promise for much of the first half, had scored 43 runs on their seven-game homestand. There were plenty of positive signs.
Perhaps none more so than third baseman Ryan Zimmerman coming to the plate with the bases loaded in the third inning and smoking the first pitch he saw into the right field seats for a grand slam.
The game was bust open, the Nationals’ victory rarely in doubt from that point on.
Johnson loved it.
“Offense,” he said with a smile, “is really looking good.”
The Nationals offensive issues to this point in the season have been multi-pronged, and chief among them is an inability to get enough guys on base. That was often compounded, too, by the Nationals’ biggest bats struggling when they were in situations to drive in runs.
But what he saw from Zimmerman on the first-pitch homer, and what he feels his lineup has been showing more effectively of late, was aggressiveness.
“He’s stinging the ball,” Johnson said. “Hitting the ball harder. He got his hits the first half of the season, but he wasn’t hitting the ball like he’s capable of hitting it.”
As far as being an aggressive hitter, Zimmerman is generally considered very patient at the plate.
This season, he’s swung at the first pitch only 14 percent of the time — that’s down from his 18 percent career mark but not by much — and he rarely varies from that.
However, when Zimmerman does make contact with a first pitch — which, according to Brooksbaseball, is 17 times this season — he often gets good results. Four of his home runs have come on the first pitch of an at-bat (including Sunday’s grand slam). Seven of those 17 times he’s gotten a hit.
He has a theory about those results.
“I’ve kind of been the same way my whole career and I think I take a lot of first-pitch strikes,” he said. “But that kind of gives me fastballs down the middle when the bases are loaded, too.
“I’m not necessarily in take mode but (Davey and I have) talked before about being a little bit more aggressive and to a certain extent he is right. Getting behind 0-1 is not the best all the time. I’m still going to stick with the plan that has gotten me to where I am now. Obviously talking and going back and forth, that’s what baseball is all about: making adjustments and learning. I think all of us have gotten a little more aggressive. If that pitch is there go ahead and hit it, if it’s not, sit on another pitch.”
The pitch that Zimmerman homered on? He’d seen it before.
“It was the same exact pitch pretty much that I struck out on, 3-2, (in my first at-bat),” he said. “I don’t know how I missed the 3-2 but I learned from it.”
His manager was exceptionally pleased.
“In the past I think he sometimes would look for the perfect pitch to hit and drive and then get in pitchers counts and not hit the ball as hard as he’s capable of hitting it,” Johnson said. “Just opening that up a little and that’s a great sign. Prett much everybody in the lineup now is getting more aggressive.