NEW YORK — One of the most oft-tossed around adages inside a baseball clubhouse is that theirs is a game of failure. Success is a relative term when the batting leaders in September have made outs in two-thirds of their trips to the plate. “Perseverance,” shortstop Ian Desmond said late Wednesday night, “is what this game is built on.”
But for much of his professional career, Ryan Zimmerman rarely dealt with a significant dose of failure. His time in the minor leagues was little more than a brief stopover to becoming the best player on bad teams, and then a $100 million player on a very good one. He earned a Gold Glove at third base and he’d bang about 20-25 home runs a year. It seemed so effortless. So simple.
This season has been different. A shoulder injury that required offseason surgery compounded issues with his throwing mechanics, and trying to break two years of bad habits made routine plays cause to hold your breath. Talking heads debated when to move him to first base, or if the Nationals needed a new third baseman. And in the season’s first five months, Zimmerman’s slugging percentage was roughly five percent below his career mark.
But Zimmerman clubbed his seventh home run in the last nine games in the Nationals’ 3-0 victory over the New York Mets on Wednesday night and made two sterling defensive plays to continue his recent stretch of far more characteristic play.
Behind a one-hit, six-inning performance from Dan Haren, Zimmerman led the Nationals to their 10th victory in their last 14 games, and their seventh on a 10-game road trip that will end on Thursday.
And perhaps more than anything else he’s done this year, Zimmerman has proven that he can rise above the struggle.
“I’ve always been taught to separate (hitting and defense), but I think baseball is contagious,” Zimmerman said Wednesday night. “Whether it’s offense or defense, everyone wants to do well and not make mistakes. I don’t know if was me trying to do more (offensively) to make up mistakes I made defensively, (but) it wasn’t fun. It’s not fun to go out there and make errors and do things to hurt the team. I want to make those plays for those guys more than anyone else.
“It’s just nice to be able to go out and play baseball again.”
Feeling like himself again, Zimmerman’s power surge of late has coincided with his teams. The Nationals stayed six games back in the wild card by virtue of a Reds victory, but as long as they continue to win their hope will remain.
“I don’t know how many more games we can lose, but it’s not many,” said Haren, who manager Davey Johnson figured was the first guy he’d ever pulled from a one-hitter on a muggy night in Queens. “I’m happy with the way it went out there today.”
Zimmerman broke a scoreless tie in the sixth inning with his 22nd home run of the season, dove to his right and made a laser-beam throw to get speedy Ruben Tejada in the third inning and, charging, bare-handed a ball in the fifth to back Haren’s best effort since late August.
Anthony Rendon smoked a two-run double to score Desmond and first baseman Adam LaRoche in the eighth for a little extra cushion, but it was Zimmerman who the Nationals on this night.
“I said it before: the guy’s a superstar player,” said Desmond, who passionately defended Zimmerman in April when a rash of errors led to a wave of scrutiny. “With the hitting comes confidence. With home runs comes confidence. He’s getting back to being the player that he knows he’s capable of being. Sometimes as baseball players, that confidence leaves you a little bit. It’s nice to see.
“If you don’t have perseverance you get knocked down and you get humbled. He’s been a prime example of (perseverance). That’s not always easy to find in a $100 million player… He had to deal with a lot of trials in the main spotlight with everybody trying to critique. It’s hard to kind of brush that stuff off and he’s done a great job of it. That’s why he’s a cornerstone of the organization. That’s the type of player (general manager Mike Rizzo) is looking for and it’s been fun to watch. It’s a good story, more than anything else.”
Teammates have supported Zimmerman throughout, seeing on a daily basis how he was dealing with the struggle — how he owned up to his issues and diligently worked to improve, despite how difficult it seemed at times.
“It usually takes more courage than anything else,” Desmond said.
Haren talked of pitchers taking on the responsibility of picking up a fielder when they make an error — of it being a team game and that so many of the plays defenders, including Zimmerman, make save pitchers with little fanfare. Zimmerman noted that he’s looking forward to seeing what a full offseason of strength training will do for him, too.
“I think I still have a ways to go,” Zimmerman said. “But where I was at the beginning of the year to where I am now is obviously a lot better. I still have some days every now and then where I’m not where I want to be. But overall, it’s gotten a lot better… Hopefully next year I’ll play the entire year like I have the last month or so.”
“It’s been a grind for him,” Desmond said. “And I’m glad that it’s starting to kind of all come together.”
“It’s been a good year for him,” added Johnson. “With all he’s been through with his shoulder and everything, and the trials and tribulations he had early, I think he’s starting to feel much more comfortable out there and better about how it’s all coming out.”
Then the manager smiled, perhaps glowing from the fact that his team continued to play the way he expects.
“We ain’t moving him to first, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said. “Alright?”