VIERA, Fla. — After the Washington Nationals came in from the first inning against the Houston Astros Saturday night, manager Davey Johnson sidled up to his third baseman and, wearing a large grin, posed a question to him.
“Did you have any trouble finding your way out there?” Johnson asked, his joke intended to disarm Zimmerman after his first inning on defense since last October.
“I found my way,” Zimmerman told him. “But I was a lot more nervous than I thought I’d be.”
It’s a rare occasion that Zimmerman will admit to feeling nervous during a game. But when Zimmerman took the field Saturday night he couldn’t help it.
He’d been happy with his progress this spring in rehabbing and building strength in his right shoulder after offseason surgery. His consistency with his throws was better, his arm was stronger. He felt confident that he could use the final two weeks of the spring to round out all the work he’d done and be ready for the season.
“I can’t remember the last bad day, as far as throwing,” he said.
But none of that mattered, for a few minutes anyway, as the sun began to set behind Space Coast Stadium. He was nervous.
“I think we all get nervous,” he said. “You hold yourself to such a high standard. You can rehab as much as you want and do things as much as you want, but you always want to be as good as you were before something happened. So, it’s part of the process.”
Zimmerman had just one play to make in his four innings of work, a ground ball he charged in on and made a strong throw across his body to first base to get Astros catcher Carlos Corporan. It wasn’t the type of throw that generally hampered Zimmerman, even when his shoulder gave him trouble in 2012, but he felt it was still a good test.
“I think they’re all a test right now, just to get back into it and kind of get experience on every play,” he said. “The more that I get, whether it’s those or routine, I feel comfortable doing everything. Now it’s just a matter of getting the experience again of doing it in the game and at game speed. We’ll get plenty of time to do that in the next 10-12 days.”
The more routine throws he practiced between innings. They weren’t always as fluid as the ones he’s made when playing catch or fielding ground balls during workouts. Some forced Adam LaRoche to move off the first base bag, but they improved each inning and Zimmerman acknowledged they can still get better.
“In two weeks, I’ll be a little better than I am now,” he said. “That was kind of the whole point in waiting this long. We wanted to make sure I was ready and capable of doing everything in a game. Because you never know what’s going to happen in a game. You might say you’re going to take it easy and then get a back-hander or something like that. It’s not like I’m going to catch it and not throw.
“I wanted to make sure I could do everything that I was going to do in a game. Some of it might be at 85 or 90 percent instead of 100, but I wanted to feel like I was ready to make all the plays out there.”
Zimmerman, along with the rest of the Nationals’ regulars will start to play more innings this week. Zimmerman has been serving as the Nationals’ designated hitter for a few weeks and said he could play nine innings right now if he was asked to. Most likely all of the Nationals’ starting position players will end up playing nine innings at some point this week, as Johnson begins to “go to the whip,” as he calls it, in the penultimate week of spring training.
The hope, of course, is that Zimmerman will get more opportunities in games to work on his throwing and continue to build up his strength and his stamina in preparation for Opening Day.
So far, Johnson likes what he’s seeing.
“I like everything about it,” he said. “More natural. That’s what he set out to do, and that’s what he’s doing.”