- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2014

MIAMI — As the Nationals turn to the final week of the regular season, they do so with two significant goals in mind.

Yes, they would like to continue winning. They would like to clinch the best record in the National League, and the home-field advantage that comes with it, in addition to their division title. They would like to enter the playoffs with momentum.

But at the same time, they also realize the importance of good health. Manager Matt Williams has tried to exercise caution and give his players additional rest. Avoiding injuries is every bit as important as winning. And on Saturday night, the Nationals were able to do both.

In a 3-2 victory over the Marlins, Washington won its third straight game and cut its magic number for the best record in the NL to five with one week remaining. But the team also appears to have avoided two injury scares in the process, with Ryan Zimmerman and Jordan Zimmermann both emerging from the game healthy.

After missing 55 games with a strained right hamstring, Zimmerman was activated off the disabled list Saturday afternoon, legged out a triple in his third at-bat and then sprinted home, pushing the muscle harder than he had at any point in his rehabilitation process. Zimmermann, meanwhile, took a line drive off his right shoulder in the sixth and left the game at the end of the inning.

“[He was] pitching well, certainly can go longer,” Williams said. “But not tonight. Not with something like that. We’re not going to take any chances there.”

Zimmermann delivered a fastball to Casey McGehee to lead off the sixth, and McGehee rocketed it back toward the mound. Zimmermann said he barely had time to think but naturally lifted his shoulder enough to block the ball. Second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera picked it up and threw it to first for the out.

“I saw the ball coming and it looked like it was stopped,” Zimmermann said. “It happened so fast, I don’t even think my reaction was fast enough to do anything. It just happened to be that my shoulder was in the right spot at the right time.”

Zimmermann broke his jaw on a similar play while he was at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. A comebacker hit him in the face during a simulated game, and his jaw was subsequently screwed back into place. In what has become something of a Pointers legend, he returned to the mound in a matter of months and pitched with his jaw sealed shut.

Williams said Zimmermann now has “a pretty good welt” on his throwing shoulder. The right-hander said it’s sore but should not be an issue moving forward.

“No, I mean it’s not going to affect me or anything,” Zimmermann said. “We just made the decision that it wouldn’t be smart to go back out there and keep throwing.”

Zimmermann allowed just five hits and one earned run over six innings of work to improve to 13-5 on the season. The return of Zimmerman was one reason why.

In the seventh, the veteran slapped a triple to right field, scoring Ian Desmond from first base and putting the Nationals on the board. Before the game, the 29-year-old talked about the importance of “playing smarter” and not putting too much stress on his hamstring. So on the triple, he merely trotted around the bases rather than his usual sprint.

His next base-running decision, however, was admittedly not as smart. Wilson Ramos hit a chopper to third base, and Zimmerman bolted toward home out of pure instinct. He realized mid-sprint that it probably wasn’t a smart idea, and he was thrown out at the plate.

“I made some good decisions and probably some not-so-good decisions,” Zimmerman said. “It’s something we need to try to avoid. … Nothing happened, everything was fine that time. But going forward, I probably should take it a little easier than that.”

Zimmerman said before the game that he had been running at 80-85 percent of his full capacity. On that sprint home, he said he pushed himself even harder. So Williams, in turn, lifted him from the game. Not because of an injury, but as a precaution.

“We’d just as soon he not try to score on that ball,” Williams said. “But it’s instinct. The ball gets hit and it’s a high chopper, and ordinarily you’d be able to score there, so it’s instinct for him to go. Then after, given all of that, I didn’t want to push it, either.”

Williams decided not to push Zimmerman or Zimmermann on Saturday night, taking a cautious approach with each. But it’s an interesting balancing act. As the Nationals continue to play it safe with injuries, they also continue to bring a level of intensity to the field with the end of the regular season, and a playoff run, in sight.

“We’re still battling,” Denard Span said. “Even though we’ve clinched, we feel loose but at the same time it feels like we’re still playing for something. It’s good to see guys still into ballgames not giving up, just because we’ve already clinched. I think it’s a good sign.”

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