- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

Frank Robinson paid a visit to the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse before Thursday’s game at Shea Stadium, and among the first players he encountered was Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals’ former manager, who happens to be one of the greatest hitters baseball has ever known, barely had said hello to Zimmerman before offering up an observation on the struggling third baseman.

“You’re swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone,” Robinson said.

Zimmerman’s response: “No kidding. Why do you think I’m hitting .200?”

It seems everyone is paying close attention to Zimmerman’s sluggish start to the season, and everyone has an answer for what ails him. The 23-year-old star graciously accepts advice and doesn’t shy away from reporters’ repeated questions about his struggles, but deep down you get the feeling he would prefer everyone just let him be.

Not that Zimmerman doesn’t appreciate the support. He just isn’t as worried about his performance as everyone else.

Over and over again the last three weeks, he has uttered phrases like “it’s still early” and “things will start coming around,” and he brushes aside any notion he’s feeling pressure to get out of this funk.

“I don’t ever feel pressed, to tell you the truth,” he said following another Nationals loss last week in New York. “You want to get hits every time, and you can’t. You’ve got to learn to deal with that.”

But at what point can Zimmerman no longer deal with it and admit this is more than just an early season slump? He exited yesterday’s loss to the Florida Marlins with a .215 average, two homers and seven RBI, which is a rate that over 162 games would equate to 17 homers and 60 RBI.

Even more alarming has been Zimmerman’s absolute inability to come through in key situations. He is an astounding 1-for-24 with men in scoring position.

Zimmerman didn’t even realize how poorly he has done in that department until asked about it last week — further evidence of how little he’s concerned but also evidence of how much everyone else is.

Zimmerman’s struggles are probably the biggest story line in the first three weeks of the Nationals’ season. Sure, the pitching has been hit-or-miss, the defense and baserunning has been poor and the overall offense has been downright pathetic.

But it all begins with the man who has been deemed the “Face of the Franchise” practically since the moment he was drafted three years ago. When one has been deemed a star and team leader, every little action is going to be watched closely, and every mistake is going to be magnified.

That is simply the way it is, for any player like Zimmerman. If he’s going to be touted as the Nationals’ Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken, he’s going to face similar scrutiny.

Zimmerman is fine with all that. He fully embraces the “Face of the Franchise” tag that has been bestowed upon him, and he seems to have the right mentality to handle it.

But in the nearly three years since he arrived in the District, he has enjoyed far more positive days than negative ones, perhaps leading to a consensus feeling that he can do no wrong.

A .215 overall average and .042 average with runners in scoring position should be a cold dose of reality for Nationals fans, executives, observers and for Zimmerman himself. Guess what? He’s not perfect.

But he’s not out of time to correct all this. There are more than five months of baseball yet to be played, and if Zimmerman merely hits the way he’s capable of hitting the rest of the way, this ugly start will be long forgotten by the time September rolls around.

But no one can make that happen but Zimmerman. It doesn’t matter how much advice he receives from his own coaches or from a Hall of Famer. He must be the one to right his own ship, and he’ll be the first to admit that.

As long as he realizes everyone who has any interest in the Nationals is going to keep harping on him until he does.

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