Ryan Zimmerman gives Nationals’ offense shot of power after injection

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DENVER — Gone are the swings a tick too slow, the confounding strikeouts, the weak ground balls to the left side. In the first three games since Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot in the AC joint of his right shoulder, he was 6 for 13 with two doubles and a home run.

Tuesday night, in the process of notching his 1,000th career hit, Zimmerman had his first three-hit game since May 19, a span of 30 games and 128 plate appearances.

It’s almost as if a switch was flipped the minute the Washington Nationals’ team doctors administered the corticosteroid directly to the spot that had been hampering Zimmerman for several weeks.

“It just feels better,” Zimmerman said Tuesday. “It freed it up a little and let me do things like I’ve always done. It’s hard to make adjustments if you’re doing things the way you don’t normally do them and be successful.”

So for the first time in weeks, the Nationals aren’t worrying about Zimmerman. Before they opted to give him the injection, team officials and doctors discussed with him their options and the potential pitfalls of this course of treatment. While this could be an exciting season for the Nationals, all agreed that Zimmerman’s health, particularly over the course of his eight-year contract extension, was more important than the here and now.

“If it starts to hurt again we’ll consider doing something else or doing it again,” Zimmerman said Sunday. “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.”

The merits of cortisone as a means of treatment, though, are debated in the medical community. While many praise it for its immediate ability to relieve pain and inflammation, it doesn’t have healing qualities and most doctors caution against overuse. While using it to relieve pain in a joint carries far less peril than administering it repeatedly to a ligament or tendon (where it would only serve to mask pain and the absence of that pain could lead to further injury) there are risks.

According to Mayo Clinic physicians, where the danger zone lies varies based on joint and the reason for the treatment. But most physicians will put a limit on the number one person can receive before possible cartilage deterioration in the joint exists.

When Zimmerman sat on the training table in Baltimore on Sunday morning, though, they already had seen what giving the shot, coupled with rest, would do. Zimmerman had already two this season, the first at the end of April when the inflammation arose and the second a week later when the first one did not take. He also rested for 17 days.

The other option was to go in and clean out what is likely a small arthritic section of bone, which would cost him significant time during the season but could be easily accomplished if staved off until the winter. They opted to give the cortisone another chance, forgoing the rest period. It took. How long it will last is the only unknown.

“I think [Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer] took one every two weeks,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I’m just hoping that occasional cortisone shots keep the inflammation down and him freer.”

And despite the fact that Zimmerman already has had one, eventually, wear off, the possibility exists that this one will sustain him for a long time — perhaps even throughout the rest of the season.

In 2008, dealing with the same injury, Baltimore third baseman Melvin Mora received a cortisone shot at the All-Star break. He hit .233 in the first half that season and .376 in the second half and did not require a second shot. He also underwent a minor procedure to clean the area out the following offseason.

The relief Zimmerman has felt the past three days has been obvious. And the absence of that pain allows his performance to answer any questions about whether his low numbers were slump- or pain-related.

Monitoring that pain, though, and knowing when it’s time for more treatment will be the for the next few months. And if Zimmerman’s not, the Nationals surely will be.

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