NEW YORK — The Nationals spent nine weeks at the start of the season running out a lineup that didn't include their best player.
So when Ryan Zimmerman returned to Washington's active roster June 14, six weeks after surgery to repair a torn rectus muscle in his abdomen, it was with a somewhat sore core and during the midst of a revamping of his throwing motion. But he was back.
When he first returned, though, each day he'd spend significant time before batting practice working on fielding ground balls and making throws to first base. He did it under the watchful eye of infield coordinator Jeff Garber and with the interest of an entire fan base.
It didn't go smoothly at first. Zimmerman's throwing errors began to pile up, an uncharacteristic struggle for the former Gold Glove winner. Coming shortly after the Nationals drafted third baseman Anthony Rendon with their first pick, the issue prompted somewhat rash speculation that perhaps Zimmerman's future was across the diamond at first base.
But Monday night at Citi Field, watching Zimmerman dive to his left, field a hard grounder from Justin Turner, turn completely around and make a flawless throw to first base for the out, there wasn't a hint of any uncertainty or scrutiny. Instead, it prompted his manager to compare him to former Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson and marvel at his ability.
"He's a magician over there," Davey Johnson said. "He's right up there [with the best I've seen]. I've never really seen a third baseman with the quickness that he has - and he's been very accurate. ... He gets a glove on just about everything. He's got tremendous hand-eye coordination and a lot of range."
Shortly after Johnson took over the Nationals, and in Zimmerman's second week back with the team, the third baseman committed a costly throwing error in Anaheim on a difficult play. There were questions then about whether Zimmerman should abandon his work on the new motion - one that incorporates his core and legs more than his old one did and can help prevent further abdominal injuries. He shot that down immediately.
"It's tough, but it's better," Zimmerman said that June afternoon. "If I thought that the way it was compared to this wasn't going to be a big difference, I wouldn't do it. But because I think it can make me a better player, that's the ultimate goal. If I didn't think it was worth it, I would maybe stop it and try to start it in the offseason. I'm so close and I've gotten so much better."
Zimmerman has committed just six errors since then, and there's no longer any question that his throwing motion is not improved.
"I don't have any problem with it," Johnson said. "I think he worries about it more than I do. I've seen all kinds of third basemen and their throwing motions. ... The great ones get it done, somehow or another, even on the most difficult plays in the world."
NOTES: Outfielder Corey Brown underwent surgery on his right knee Tuesday to clear up an infection doctors felt could develop into a staph infection. Brown was left behind on the trip to New York when the medical staff felt the infection could get worse, and that appeared the be the case Tuesday. There is a chance that Brown, who was a Triple-A call-up and has gotten three major league at-bats, could be done for the season.
"Basically the infection is under the skin, and it hasn't been cleared up," Johnson said. "I would think with [surgery] happening, he's out for the year. I'm no doctor, but I know one thing: You don't mess around with a staph infection."
c Laynce Nix (groin) still is not capable of playing the outfield or doing much more than pinch-hitting, though he is progressing.
c Roger Bernadina (hand) took batting practice Monday and Tuesday without reopening a laceration on his left hand and appears to be getting close to being game-ready again.
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