- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — The round baby face with the occasional acne breakouts is gone, replaced by a squarer jaw with a five o’clock shadow and a clean forehead.

The guy sitting at the coveted first locker at the end of the Washington Nationals’ spring training clubhouse looks like a seasoned veteran, a ballplayer who commands respect just by walking into the room.

At times like this, it’s easy to forget Ryan Zimmerman is just 23 years old. Now entering his third full season in the big leagues, the Nationals third baseman looks, acts and sounds more like a perennial All-Star in the prime of his career than an up-and-comer still developing as a player.

None of this, of course, surprises the Nationals. They anointed him as the face of the franchise practically from the moment they selected him fourth overall in the 2005 draft. And he has had no trouble living up to the hype.

“There’s a lot put on his shoulders by the organization, and he handles it all well,” teammate Austin Kearns said. “It doesn’t surprise me. Baseball-wise, he’s not 23. I think everybody would agree with that. He takes care of his business. He works hard. He’s not a guy who takes it for granted.”

Indeed, Zimmerman seems to relish every moment he spends representing the Nationals, whether on the field, in the clubhouse or in public. He’s paid to play baseball, nothing more. Yet ask him about the state of the franchise and he hits the public relations switch.

“We have a great foundation,” Zimmerman said. “They’ve done a good job of putting together a solid core group, and now all of a sudden we have a stadium that’s going to make some money. Now all of a sudden our farm system is top-10, and you go out and get one or two top free agents in an offseason, pretty soon you’re a playoff contender. I think that’s how it all works out. I think we realize that here, and I think that’s why we’re so excited and ready to get playing.”

If Zimmerman sounds like the team’s leader, there’s a reason for that. Manager Manny Acta has approached this sometimes soft-spoken player about taking on a more vocal role. And without trying to morph himself into a rah-rah cheerleader, Zimmerman has made an effort to speak up more.

“I think we all understand the goal here is to win, and to win you need to point out when things go wrong, whether it’s yourself or someone else,” he said. “We’re tired of losing. We’re ready to step up, on the field and in the clubhouse, and win.”

Zimmerman has done his part to help Washington win. After he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year race in 2006, he batted .266 with a team-high 24 homers and 91 RBI last season.

It was far from a perfect season, though, and Zimmerman will be the first to say that. He hit .236 in April and committed far more errors (23) than he would have liked.

Zimmerman analyzed the good and the bad from his second big-league season and sees reason to believe he’ll improve.

“I learned a lot more about everything last year,” he said. “This year I feel real comfortable with what I need to do to have a good season. … I feel like this year is going to be the best year for me.”

Zimmerman also hopes he’s fully healthy. He played much of the second half of last season with a sore left wrist. Last November, doctors discovered he had a broken hamate bone, a somewhat common injury for baseball players and golfers that required surgery.

“You can’t use it as an excuse, because if it was hurting bad enough where I didn’t think I could perform, I wouldn’t have played,” he said. “It didn’t affect me. I was good enough to play, and whatever I did, I did.”

Zimmerman said his hand feels fine now. He has hit off live pitching for more than two weeks, and he expects to be at full strength when the exhibition season starts next week.

He’ll then look to duplicate perhaps his most impressive feat from 2007: playing in all 162 games. Only six other big leaguers did that (Jeff Francouer, Carlos Lee, Juan Pierre, Jimmy Rollins, Grady Sizemore and Delmon Young), and Nationals officials believe Zimmerman can become an annual member of that club.

“He’s a young guy and he can do it,” Acta said. “If he can take it, why not? That’s something that’s been lost in the game.”

Zimmerman shrugs off mention of him becoming this generation’s Cal Ripken (his boyhood idol). That wouldn’t fit his personality.

“I enjoy playing the game,” he said. “It’s fun. It doesn’t seem like work or anything to me. So if I’m healthy enough and ready to go, I’ll go out there and play.”

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