Ted Leavengood: It all goes back to Zimmerman

There are landmark moments that stand like Mount Rushmore looking down upon the crowd of gameday events that have transpired since the first pitch was thrown out at RFK Stadium in 2005. There was Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run to send the Nationals to a Game 5 in the 2012 National League Division Series, Stephen Strasburg’s 14-strikeout debut in 2010 and maybe Bryce Harper’s breakout game against the Phillies when he stole home.

But the launch date for the current Nationals team happened March 30, 2008 when Washington played its first game amid the sparkling glory of Nationals Park. The night belonged to Ryan Zimmerman who hit a ninth-inning, walk-off home run to win a tight 3-2 contest against the Atlanta Braves. That single event foretold much of what has come since.

Zimmerman was the first high draft pick to make it to the majors after the Nationals began play in 2005. Just months after the first pitch was thrown at RFK, Zimmerman was chosen fourth overall in the draft in June 2005. It only took him a few months to establish himself as the starting third baseman in Washington. Since then he has played eight seasons, discounting the cup of coffee he earned late in 2005.

Slowly, Mike Rizzo has constructed a team of All-Star-caliber players around Zimmerman. There is not a player on the field anywhere for the Nationals who does not have All-Star numbers in his history or the potential to put them up in the near future. Werth has had that kind of season in 2013; Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper have aggregated those numbers for the past two years. But it is the Z-Man who can make them work together with the precision of a Swiss clock. He can do it with smooth glove work at third base, which is becoming commonplace again, or with the bat.

In July and August 2012, Washington won 36 games and lost only 19, a 60-day stretch of games that crafted Washington’s best season in almost 80 years. Zimmerman’s bat did much to instigate the historic moment. He hit .340 over those two months with 12 home runs. But it was July when he lifted the level of play to new heights. He had 10 home runs in July, an OBP of .434 and an OPS 1.186. They are staggering numbers, and in September, he had seven home runs to help support the playoff run.
Those numbers created mile-high expectations for 2013 that were based on the knowledge that Zimmerman had corrected the shoulder problems that weakened him in the first months of 2012. The expectation was that he would start much as he ended the 2012 season, but that never worked out.

When the Braves came to D.C. for three games early in April, Zimmerman made an error in each of the three contests. The Nationals scratched out only five runs against Atlanta pitching and Zimmerman had but two singles in 11 at-bats. The Braves swept the series and thus began the long slide into mediocrity that ended only when Zimmerman found his mojo and once again had a Zimmerman-like month of September, where he has homered 11 times thus far.

It is a team sport and Werth has provided leadership, and Denard Span, Desmond, and Wilson Ramos have followed. But it seems as though the extra oomph, the straw that stirs the drink - call it what you will - comes from Zimmerman as often as not. He was the first face of the franchise and he remains a central cog that must be operating at maximum efficiency for the machine to start spitting out runs with regularity and putting curly Ws on the board two nights out of three.

And when the season is over and the Nationals are looking ahead, trying to decide what they will need in 2014, one thing is certain. They will need the Zimmerman to come out swinging. The Nationals have more punch up and down the lineup now, but next year they need Zimmerman to play third base like he has for the second half of 2013. He has been the cornerstone of the greatness that the Washington Nationals have realized these past two seasons. Nats fans can hope we have many more seasons of textbook Zimmerman to come.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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