- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

As Ryan Zimmerman drove down Florida’s eastern coast Friday night, bound for Marlins Park and a return to the Washington Nationals, he did so knowing that his previously strained right hamstring was not yet 100 percent.

Zimmerman had made significant progress at Washington’s facility in Viera, Florida, taking more than 30 at-bats and playing three different positions in the team’s instructional league. But he still had a ways to go. He still had to learn what he was and was not capable of doing.

“That’s kind of the reason why we tried to get back to this point so quickly,” he said Tuesday, “so we can somewhat assess the situation and see what we have.”

The Nationals opened a three-game series against the New York Mets on Tuesday with the division title in hand and the best record in the National League within reach. But one significant question mark — Zimmerman’s health — still loomed. If anything, it only grew more murky when Tuesday’s lineup card was posted in the clubhouse, with Zimmerman’s name noticeably absent from it.

Manager Matt Williams said he had planned to give Anthony Rendon a day off Tuesday and play Zimmerman at third base. Instead, it was Kevin Frandsen in the starting lineup, with Zimmmerman’s hamstring still in question following his strenuous return to the lineup Saturday night.

“I don’t want to him throw him back in there and have [his hamstring] be not right,” Williams said. “The plan was for him to play again today but since he was a little bit sore we’ll be a little bit cautious.”

With his hamstring at about 80 percent of its usual health, Zimmerman knew he would have to play smarter upon his return. He would have to fight the urge to beat out infield grounders or track down wayward fly balls in left field.

He succeeded in some aspects Saturday during his first start in more than three months. On a triple to the right-field corner, he slowly trotted to third base for a triple. But on a chopper to third in the ensuing at-bat, instinct took over. He raced for home, pushing his hamstring more than he had at any point in his rehabilitation process, and was thrown out at the plate anyways.

Zimmerman said afterwards that his hamstring was a bit sore and would be fine. But after sitting out Sunday’s game and enjoying the team’s day off Monday, Zimmerman’s absence in Tuesday’s lineup only cast more doubt on his situation.

“It’s still getting a little bit better and hopefully this week it will continue to get better,” Zimmerman said. “This week will kind of tell us what we need to know. Moving forward it’s one of those things where we’ll find out a lot more this week about what I can do and what I can’t do.”

Williams first started Zimmerman in left field because he believed it would be the position at which the veteran could best manage his hamstring. Starting at third base, which requires sudden movements and a quick first step, would have been a significant step forward. Instead, Tuesday marked a step back.

“We’ll try to get him in situations where we could monitor that and get back into playing shape,” Williams said. “It’s like spring training for him. After four, five days you’re going to be sore. And coming off an injury like that, we have to be mindful.”

The Nationals had seven games left to play in the regular season, including Tuesday’s series opener, with little but momentum at stake. They can clinch home-field advantage in the National League in the coming days, but otherwise the focus will be on Zimmerman’s hamstring, and the role he may or may not play in the team’s push toward the World Series.

Matt doesn’t know. I don’t know. Rizz doesn’t know,” Zimmerman said. “We’ll find out this week what I can do and what I can’t do, then we’ll figure out what my role is going forward.”

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