Ryan Zimmerman’s season changed after third cortisone shot

He’s batted .340 with 13 of his 16 home runs since June 24

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Adam LaRoche couldn’t remember the exact swing, or what the result of it was. But two months ago, while the Washington Nationals were in Colorado witnessing an offensive awakening, LaRoche remembered the moment Ryan Zimmerman returned to the dugout and felt relief.

After almost two full months of struggling through pain in the AC joint of his right shoulder, after two cortisone shots that hadn’t taken and a disabled list stint in early May, and after his batting average and slugging percentage had dipped to once unheard of levels for the Nationals’ cornerstone, Zimmerman felt like himself again at the plate.

It was the third cortisone shot, one administered June 24 in the training room at Camden Yards in Baltimore, that changed Zimmerman’s season.

“Like two or three days after he got it, he actually mentioned something,” LaRoche said. “Something about ‘OK, now that, that feels better.’ It was nice to kind of confirm that there was something going on. It wasn’t just his swing or being off or something. Sometimes it’s just a little thing. If you feel like it works, it works. And all of a sudden you’re back on.”

Entering Thursday night’s series opener with the St. Louis Cardinals, Zimmerman had played 59 games since that morning in Baltimore. In that time he’s hit .340 with 32 extra-base hits, including 13 of his 16 home runs.

He’s driven in 45 runs and slugged .587, but the power with which he’s driving the ball — the power that was missing for so long when he was hurting — is particularly evident in his batting average on balls in play in that span.

When Zimmerman connects, he’s hitting .374.

And most importantly, he hasn’t needed another cortisone shot.

“He has not complained at all,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I’m a firm believer in those shots and getting rid of the inflammation. Sometimes the body just tries to overheal. Obviously, the first one [and the second] didn’t get in there right. But the [third] one did.”

Asked earlier this week about the health of his shoulder, Zimmerman was nonchalant. When he’s periodically been questioned on how it’s feeling, he jokes not to bring it up at the risk of jinxing the absence of pain. Every morning, he’s said, he wonders if that will be the day the discomfort returns. It hasn’t.

And if it doesn’t, he and the team may leave well enough alone even into the offseason, instead of opting to clean out the area, feeling that, as long as there’s no pain, there’s no reason to undergo an operation.

When the Nationals decided to give Zimmerman a third shot, it was a weighty decision. He signed a $100 million contract extension in February that will keep him in a Nationals uniform through at least 2019, and the pitfalls of administering cortisone repeatedly were discussed.

While many praise the anti-inflammatory for it’s ability to relieve pain, most medical professionals caution against overuse — and the Nationals did that with Zimmerman.

But, with their third baseman hitting well below his career norms at the time (.218, 13 extra-base hits,11 double plays ground into) and struggling to find an answer for the pain outside of surgery, they felt it was worth a try. How long it would last was unknown.

“If it starts to hurt again, we’ll consider doing something else or doing it again,” Zimmerman said in June. “It’s not something you want to get into a habit of doing, but it’s better than missing time. If it gets back to where it was, we’ll give it another one.”

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