Ryan Zimmerman arrived at the clubhouse at Nationals Park as he has done so many times before.
He greeted teammates and began his typical pre-game routine. But this would be a day unlike any other in his 10-year career. The longest-tenured Nats player, who was drafted in June of 2005 and made his big-league debut just three months later, looked at the lineup card written by manager Matt Williams and saw his new reality: Zimmerman, LF.
The intricacies of Washington’s roster fostered Zimmerman’s switch from third base, where he has played in 1,119 games out of 1,120 in his career, to left field, where he played three uneventful games over the weekend during a rehabilitation assignment at Single-A Potomac to test a broken right thumb.
But an arthritic right shoulder, lingering throwing issues, the day-to-day toll playing third base takes on a body, the defensive abilities of Anthony Rendon at third base, and left fielder Bryce Harper’s torn thumb ligament made Zimmerman’s shift to left field sensible to Washington’s front office and coaches.
“Hitting fifth and playing left, obviously it’s different than playing third. But I really don’t get caught up in that stuff that much,” Zimmerman said. “I take a lot of pride in playing baseball and being a good player, but very rarely do people get to play the same position their whole career. I’m lucky enough to be able to play as long as I’ve played so far. I have, hopefully, a long career ahead of me and if that includes a little bit of left field then that’s what it does.”
Zimmerman took the move in stride Tuesday night in a 7-0 victory over the Phillies, handling both of his chances in left field and going 2 for 4 with two doubles in his first appearance since breaking his thumb April 12 against Atlanta.
Jordan Zimmermann pitched eight innings for his fourth win as the Nationals returned to .500 (28-28).
Nats manager Matt Williams took a shorter view of moving his veteran third baseman to left field. He left open the possibility of getting Zimmerman at-bats at first base and third base. And when Harper returns in July, the initial plan is to move Zimmerman back to the infield. If that’s at third base, then Rendon can switch to second again with Danny Espinosa moving to the bench. If Adam LaRoche is hurt — he spent time on the 15-day disabled list earlier this season with a quadriceps injury — then it could be at first base, too.
“I don’t think [Zimmerman is] an outfielder,” Williams said. “I think he’s a great athlete and I think he can do a fine job out there. I think it’s collectively what we think we need right now. Certainly, you don’t want to just say we’re going to take other guys out of other positions. Would he like to pay third? Of course. … I think he’s a third baseman who’s been pressed into duty in the outfield.”
Last week, Zimmerman took grounders at third and first as he waited to return from a broken thumb suffered diving back into second base in an early season game against the Braves. He missed 44 games.
Williams admitted that the Nats are willing to live with minor mistakes as Zimmerman adjusts to the position. There is less pressure on his shoulder because he can put his whole body into throws. But proper routes to fly balls and playing caroms off the fence and knowing when to lay out for a ball and when to let it drop are all new experiences for Zimmerman. There is a steep learning curve. That also might be temporary. Williams made it clear a return to the infield is likely when Harper returns.
“We have to make sure that we clarify that it’s not necessarily a position change,” Williams said. “It’s on an interim basis.”
And that summed up the day for Zimmerman. Was this a permanent change, the end of one part of his career and an abrupt, unwelcome shift into another at age 29? Or will he be back at third base, his shoulder rested, his throwing issues resolved?
On Tuesday, all that mattered to Zimmerman was that he was back in the lineup, on the field again contributing as he always has for the club. There is an NL East Division title to regain, a playoff spot still there for the taking and, as Zimmerman knows well now, the window for such accomplishments can shut quickly for any club.
“The last couple years at third have been tough for me, mentally, physically,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve had to really grind it out. It’s been tough. To learn something new, to go out there and have fun and play ball again is refreshing, I guess, if you want to say it that way. Most importantly, what I’ve said before, it gives us the best chance to win. That’s the point.”