- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It seems like such a long time ago, that glorious late-March night when Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals were the toast of the District and the baseball world. A walk-off homer in the first game at Nationals Park, televised nationally by ESPN, was the first of what figured to be countless memorable moments to the 2008 season.

Or so everyone thought.

The ensuing 4 1/2 months have been torture for the Nationals and their fans, and no one is bothered more by it all than Zimmerman, the anointed “Face of the Franchise” who has experienced as disappointing a season as anyone in that clubhouse.

The Opening Night homer notwithstanding, Zimmerman slogged his way through April and May, trying to get his swing down and drive in runs the way a No. 3 hitter is supposed to. Then came that hard, headfirst slide into second base in Baltimore, leaving a small tear in Zimmerman’s left shoulder.

He spent two months on the disabled list, avoiding year-ending surgery but losing one-third of his season. And even when he came back in late July, he wound up getting hit in the hand and was back on the bench for four more games.

The good news is that Zimmerman is finally 100 percent healthy (or at least as close to that as he can get) and rediscovering his swing. He has hit .291 in 23 games since coming off the DL, and though he’s not hitting for any power - he hasn’t homered since May 17 - he’s reaching base at a stout .378 clip.

These last three weeks have felt to Zimmerman like spring training all over again - with one caveat.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “Except the pitchers aren’t going through spring training. They’re already in their prime since it’s coming into the home stretch for them. So that makes it a little harder to catch up at the same time.”

By the time the season ends six weeks from now, Zimmerman probably will have hit his stride, but it won’t make up for the 48 games he missed while sitting on the DL. His final offensive totals - perhaps 12 homers and 55 RBI - will pale in comparison to his first two seasons in the majors, when he averaged 22 homers and 100 RBI.

So it would be easy to say this is a lost year for Zimmerman and that his career has been set back. It might prove to be true, but for now neither Zimmerman nor manager Manny Acta believes it.

Sure, the numbers won’t look good on the back of his baseball card, but that doesn’t mean this hasn’t been a productive season for the 23-year-old, who says he’s grown in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with offensive statistics.

“This season has been a learning experience for me,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve never had to play banged up like I have this year. I think that’s going to help me in the long run, especially when we turn the corner and become a contender as a team.”

Acta sees a player who continues to mature each day he spends in the big leagues, one who even when he was on the DL would study games and situations from the dugout, hoping to pick up some new tidbit.

“He never stops learning,” the manager said. “This is a kid who’s not afraid to ask questions or admit when he doesn’t do something right. Is he going to get back those 50 games and the production he should have had? No. But I think that every inning and every at-bat for him is important.”

It won’t result in a big payday come this winter - there’s virtually no chance Zimmerman and the Nationals will talk long-term contract right now, leaving him to go through arbitration for the first time - but it won’t be a wholly unproductive season.

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