Destination is near in Ryan Zimmerman’s path back to normal

Nationals third baseman says throwing motion is ‘natural’ and ‘free’

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LAKELAND, Fla. — There will come a day, perhaps no more than a week from now, when Ryan Zimmerman will be slotted into the Washington Nationals’ lineup to do more than just hit. It will be the day when Zimmerman gets to stand on a baseball field during a game for the first time since October and feel the one thing he never could during the 2012 season: normal.

The third baseman’s oft-scrutinized throwing motion is close to game-ready. The shoulder that underwent a surgical offseason cleanup is continuing to gain strength. And the relief? That’s evident in the words Zimmerman uses to describe his progress.

“It’s way better,” Zimmerman said on a quiet morning last week, measuring his strength at close to 90 percent and noticing the return of the natural life on his throws. There is still some weakness in the shoulder, still progress to be made, but that will dissipate as he continues his repetitions.

“It’s more natural,” he said. “It’s free. It’s just, not as mental, I guess. Just catch it and throw.”

That’s a description that would certainly not fit the herky-jerky machinations Zimmerman had to go through during the 2012 season just to get the ball across the diamond. The bang-bang, sidearm throws were fine. But, perhaps most frustratingly, it was the routine plays that would serve as cause for a held breath.

There were good weeks, and there were bad weeks. And there were days where the numbness in his right shoulder, courtesy of four cortisone shots administered over the course of the season to keep the pain at bay, just left him wondering what path the ball would take — with little idea of how he’d affected its trajectory.

“You just had to sort of, somehow, figure out how to get it over there,” he said.

“I think there’s a noticeable difference in what he’s doing now, compared to what he did last year,” said assistant athletic trainer Steve Gober, who has served as Zimmerman’s throwing partner throughout the spring and watched his progress up close. “Last year, he did what he could to play.”

Zimmerman registered 12 throwing errors in 2012, the most he’d had since the 2009 season, and he had a Gold Glove first baseman manning the opposite corner in Adam LaRoche.

He’d be lying if he didn’t acknowledge that the thought of how long he could go on that way entered his mind. It’s human nature, he pointed out, and he plays a position with a good deal of throwing involved.

There are some who think that by the time Zimmerman’s contract with the Nationals is done — and it could run through the 2020 season — his position will be across the diamond where his stellar glove will be showcased with less throwing needed.

That may be true eventually, and perhaps the play of someone else could force him there sooner. The Nationals know Anthony Rendon’s time in the minors is dwindling, provided he stays healthy, and he’s played third as well as shortstop with second base in his future, too.

“I’ve said all along I want to be on a team with a bunch of great players,” Zimmerman said. “If he becomes a better player than me, than he plays third base. It is what it is. That’s the business.”

But what Zimmerman found himself thinking most often as he went through last season — and the surgery, and the rehab — was that it’s not time for that. Not yet.

“If there was something really wrong with my shoulder, then maybe,” Zimmerman said of the issue possibly speeding up his change in positions. “But when they went in there and just cleaned it up, that’s not like a huge deal. I obviously want to play third as long as I can. I think that’s the plan.

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