Even as the Nationals packed up in a music-filled clubhouse in San Diego on Sunday afternoon, the positive vibes from a three-game winning streak and 6-5 West Coast trip flowing, one question remained.
How much would it mean to arrive in Washington with their All-Star third baseman ready to return to the active roster?
"Is that right?" right fielder Jayson Werth asked when told of the possibility Ryan Zimmerman could rejoin the team Tuesday when the Nationals open a nine-game homestand. "That'd be a shot in the arm."
It has been 58 games since Zimmerman last played in a major league game, and Tuesday will mark six weeks to the day that he underwent surgery to repair a torn rectus muscle in his abdomen.
While he has been working his way back, from walking a 30-minute mile one day after surgery to a six-game minor league rehab stint (8-for-21, four extra-base hits, three RBI), his team has continued to be among the worst offensive units in the majors.
This is, after all, a team that scored just nine runs in its past 36 innings.
But the Nationals have been winning - the beneficiaries of the best defense in franchise history over the past 11 games and a string of pitching performances so impressive that Jim Riggleman couldn't recall seeing as dominant a stretch in his 11-plus seasons as a major league manager.
They also went 27-31 without Zimmerman; lows seemed to drag for days and highs were fleeting.
But since the Nationals headed west, things have been different. Their .987 fielding percentage trails only the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies at .988, and Washington's starters have combined for a 2.25 ERA in the past 13 games.
"Winning games like that the last few days, winning one-run games, that starts to turn around," outfielder Laynce Nix said Sunday, "We know we can hold these guys down. We feel like if we can just put one run across, we'll win the game."
While Jerry Hairston Jr., Alex Cora and, occasionally, Brian Bixler have filled in adequately at third, the Nationals certainly have missed Zimmerman's bat.
"It's going to be a big boost to the lineup," said Jordan Zimmermann, who has watched the Nationals average just more than three runs in games he starts. "He's been swinging pretty good in rehab starts, from what I've seen. We'll see what happens."
In a full year, when he's at his best, Zimmerman accounts for 5.3 wins above replacement (WAR). At this point in the season, that'd be good for about two more wins - which would put the Nationals two games under .500 at 32-34. But that doesn't take into account the stabilizing effect he can have on a lineup that's cycled through numerous combinations without much success.
If he can provide the extra three wins that his WAR suggests over the course of the rest of the season, Zimmerman will be exactly what the Nationals need.
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