Zimmerman: Nats can win division in different way this time around

NEW YORK - The Nationals’ longest-tenured player, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, spoke up Thursday about his club’s chances of getting something going in its quest for a third straight division title.

The Nats have started the season 47-46 and trail the Phillies by 5 1/2 games in the National League East.

In his 14th year with the club, Zimmerman could be as close as one week away from returning to the lineup. He has been out since May 10 with a right oblique strain. He has missed 54 games.

He weighed in on the Nats’ chances to get back in the race. With a record hovering around .500 and sitting in third place, Zimmerman believes a fight like this is what the Nats need after building big division leads for most of 2016 and 2017, then cruising into the playoffs.

Maybe winning the division in a different fashion by battling for the final 2 1/2 months of the season might help change what happens in the divisional series?

Zimmerman argues that by fighting until the end, the Nats won’t have to reignite that drive, that intensity, once the postseason arrives.

“I honestly think it might be good for us,” Zimmerman reasoned. “The last few times we’ve won the division, by now we have a double-digit lead, and I think we’ve clinched the first or second of week of September.

“So then you get into that predicament where you don’t know if you want to play every day or if you want to play a couple days and take a day off, and then even on the games you are playing, you obviously play hard every day. I’ve never gone out there and not played hard, but when you’ve already accomplished your regular season goal - and don’t get me wrong I would take that every single year - I’m not complaining about it, but I think it could be good for us.”

The Nats enjoyed a double-digit lead from the mid-July of last season until the end of the regular season.

The Nats had at least a seven-game lead pretty much from Aug. 3 on to end the 2016 campaign.

Zimmerman Swings Gray Sidebar.jpgBut this season, they are around the .500 mark in mid-July, and in third place in the division.

“It could let us know what we’re really made of,” Zimmerman said. “And hopefully if we can come back after the break, and maybe make a little run, we’ll be kind of going into the playoffs on an uphill instead of kind of trying to hold that intensity that we had and didn’t really have to use for two or three weeks (in 2016 and 2017).”

Zimmerman has not been able to play for a majority of this season. He would certainly love to get back to playing baseball again as soon as possible. He also says the club is not feeling sorry for itself with the predicament they have put themselves in. He said at 46-46, what the Nats need to do to get back in the race is pretty obvious.

“You’ve got to look at things positively, I’m not going to sit here and pout about us playing bad and being hurt,” Zimmerman said. “I think if you look at it that way it gives us a goal to shoot for and something to come out of the break ready to go.”

In 2018, there has been talk as well that the window might be closing on this version of the Nats, especially with Bryce Harper’s free agency looming at the end the season.

But Zimmerman said the foundation of this club is still intact, and the Nats can stay in the race each season because they have some depth on their team and in the minor leagues to rebuild. Does Zimmerman feel pressure to win now with possibly a couple of major parts of the team leaving at the end of the season?

“Fortunately, I think we have pressure every year now, which is a good thing, because we’ve been good and people expect us to win,” he said.

“As far as the window or whatever people call it - obviously (Bryce Harper) - who knows what’s going to happen with him. I think it’s (Daniel) Murphy’s last year, as well. I don’t know if you guys have been watching but we have a 19-year-old that (was) called up that’s pretty good. And there’s another kid in the minor leagues that came up last year that’s pretty good, as well, and the top two pitchers in our rotation are signed here forever and they’re decent, so I think we’re going to be pretty good. The shortstop’s got a good career ahead of him, as well.

“Do we want to keep everyone together? Of course. We went through the same thing from the team that won it in ‘12 with (Ian Desmond) and the guys that have been here forever - it’s just what happens in sports. Would I love to play with Bryce my entire career? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t? I think he’s one of the best players in the game.

“Who knows what’s going to happen, maybe he comes back, maybe he doesn’t, but to say that there’s pressure? I don’t - I think there’s pressure every year. If we don’t make the playoffs, if we don’t get past the first round of the playoffs, that’s just how it is, but I don’t think anyone in here would have it any other way. That’s what you play the game for.”

The bottom line for Zimmerman and this version of the Nats is the main goal each year: winning the World Series.

“We want to compete for the championship, not the first pick,” he said.

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