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Ryan Zimmerman’s return should boost Nats, no matter where he plays

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The decisions the Nationals must make when Ryan Zimmerman returns from seven weeks on the disabled list remain a puzzle with no easy solution.

But make no mistake: Washington needs its star third baseman back — even if he's no longer their third baseman. Zimmerman has been out since April 12 after breaking his right thumb diving back into second base in a game against the Atlanta Braves. But he began a minor-league rehabilitation assignment on Friday at Single-A Potomac that continued through Monday night.

It is possible that Zimmerman will be activated as soon as Tuesday when the Nats (27-28) begin a three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies. His bat will only help a club that has just one regular — first baseman Adam LaRoche (.934) — with an OPS over .800.

"When we've had these injuries, again, it's try to hold things down until guys get back and we're slowly getting guys back in there healthy," LaRoche said after Sunday's 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers. "Zimmerman will be another big piece of that. That's a middle-of-the order guy for us. Big bat. We can use the runs."

Zimmerman was off to a torrid start through 10 games. He was 12-for-33 (.364 batting average) with two homers and three doubles. He had a .636 slugging percentage and a .405 on-base percentage. Wherever he fits into the field when the Nats finally activate him, Zimmerman instantly makes the lineup better. But how much? And what dominoes fall in the field?

On Monday night for Potomac, Zimmerman started in left field for the third consecutive game. He was the designated hitter last Friday. Through those first three games he batted 3-for-10 with three RBI. He played five innings in left on Saturday, seven on Sunday and was expected to go the full nine Monday barring any setbacks.

Zimmerman took fielding drills during batting practice last week and looked solid, according to manager Matt Williams. He took grounders at third base and first base. Zimmerman saw limited playing time at first base during spring training before his chronic right shoulder soreness recurred. For two weeks he has been working in left field before games, something he's never done in his pro career.

But for now that's where Zimmerman fits best. With Bryce Harper on the disabled list with a torn left thumb ligament and out until around the All-Star break in July, Zimmerman would be replacing the struggling Nate McLouth. That would allow Anthony Rendon to stay at third base, his natural position and a spot where he's been spectacular in Zimmerman's absence.

That leaves Danny Espinosa at second base, where he, too, has been excellent in the field. Espinosa's issues are a high strikeout rate and numbers that are again bordering on unacceptable at the plate. If his bat comes around again, as it did in April, there's always the chance Washington could move Harper to center in place of Denard Span, whose on-base percentage in the leadoff spot is lower than the team would like.

But that's a problem for later in the season. For now, Zimmerman sliding into left would be the easiest solution: Keep the better defensive players at positions they are comfortable and take stress of Zimmerman's arthritic right shoulder, which has played a role in his throwing issues at third base. He was once a Gold Glove player there, but hasn't played like one in recent seasons.

"It's important [to get repetitions in left field]. But it's important for [Zimmerman] to play all over the place," Williams said. "Certainly, as we've discussed, there may be an opportunity for him to play in left, there may be an opportunity to play at third and at first depending on matchup and day and all that."

Zimmerman has long insisted that he's a fast starter — though a .772 OPS in March and April, his second-worst of any month, disputes that. But Zimmerman has been known to find his swing quickly after coming off the disabled list. There's a reason he loathes spring training so much with its endless series of games. A handful of at-bats, Zimmerman has said, serve him just fine. It's likely four games with Potomac will be enough.

"It's definitely a big boost," Span said. "We're just excited for him to come back to the lineup. He's a big part of this team and a big part of our lineup. We definitely missed him and can't wait for him to get back just to add that extra presence."

In the National League, Washington ranks sixth in team OPS out of 15 clubs. It is sixth in on-base percentage and seventh in slugging and batting average. That's led to 222 runs through 55 games, which is 19th overall and seventh in the NL. So while the offense hasn't been as bad as advertised, it's also crucial to take some pressure off the league's top bullpen and a group of starting pitchers that has dealt with its own injury issues.

Zimmerman fielded three doubles hit toward him in left field over his first two minor-league games there and caught a routine fly ball. On the bases Sunday, however, he gave the organization a scare. Zimmerman was caught in a rundown between third base and home plate and was called out diving headfirst into the bag at third. That's exactly how he broke his thumb in the first place.

"He slid headfirst back into third with no issues," Williams said after Sunday's loss before sighing audibly and drawing laughs from the assembled reporters. "He did fine. ... No more rundowns, though."

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