On Zimmerman’s power surge and Johnson’s use of his southpaws

Here’s how locked-in Ryan Zimmerman is lately, from a power perspective:

Over Zimmerman’s first 463 at-bats of the season, he hit 15 home runs, an average of 30.8 at-bats per homer.

Over Zimmerman’s last 39 at-bats, Zimmerman has hit seven home runs, an average of 5.6 at-bats per longball.

If Zimmerman could keep this pace up over the course of a full season (550 at-bats), he’d have 98 homers. Sounds pretty doable, right?

Strangely enough, in this nine-game span where Zimmerman’s power has emerged in a major way, it’s not like he’s hitting everything thrown to him. In fact, he has just nine hits in these nine games. It just so happens that seven of those nine have left the yard.

Zimmerman is batting .231 and reaching base at a .302 clip during this stretch. His slugging percentage, however, is a ridiculous .769.

Over these last nine games, Zimmerman’s slugging percentage for the season has jumped 26 points up to .462, the highest it’s been since July 11. And suddenly, Zimmerman’s stat line for the season with 17 games remaining (.275/.348/.462, 22 homers, 70 RBIs) isn’t too far from his career averages.

One of the more interesting managerial decisions made by Davey Johnson in last night’s 3-0 Nationals win, in my opinion, was bringing in Xavier Cedeno to start the seventh inning with the Nats holding a tight 1-0 lead.

Cedeno was the first reliever out of the bullpen after Dan Haren had delivered six scoreless innings, and the southpaw was brought in to face Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda, two left-handed hitters.

Since being claimed off waivers from the Astros back on April 23, Cedeno has had four separate stints with the Nats. Prior to last night, he’d appeared in a grand total of three big league games as a National, allowing one run on three hits over 1 2/3 innings. Yet, here he was, in a one-run game, with the Nats needing a win as they hold out hope of grabbing a playoff spot.

Cedeno got the job done, striking out Murphy and getting Duda to fly out to right. But beyond the actual results, this was clearly an example of how Johnson plans to use his left-handed relievers over these final 17 games.

It’s no secret that the lefties that Johnson has in his bullpen are fairly untested at the major league level. Fernando Abad has now pitched four seasons in the big leagues, but his ERA coming into this year was 5.10. Ian Krol has been up and down in his first season as a major leaguer and has a 3.67 ERA. And Cedeno now has a 5.88 ERA in his brief major league career.

Johnson has made it clear that he felt the Nats didn’t do a good enough job giving themselves a balanced bullpen to start the season. He wanted more quality left-handed options after seeing Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez depart via free agency last winter, but Zach Duke was the only left-handed reliever on the 25-man roster through the early part of the season, and Duke struggled mightily.

These 17 games will serve as the Nats’ last chance to make a postseason push, but they’ll also serve as a chance for Johnson and the Nats brass to evaluate how their three left-handed relievers - Abad, Krol and Cedeno - handle being put into tough situations, situations like coming on in the seventh inning of a one-run game and being asked to get two left-handed hitters.

Can any of these three southpaws be counted on to handle a heavy workload out of the ‘pen next season? Can they be trusted to face Jason Heyward in the eighth inning with a runner in scoring position? Or does general manager Mike Rizzo need to go out and make adding a proven left-handed reliever or two a priority this offseason?

Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, the Nats hope to get some information that will help them make that decision.

It might be a tough balance for Johnson to strike at times, with the Nats trying to make an all-out run at a wild card spot while still evaluating talent for next season, but it’s a balance he’ll have to strike. And last night, at least, Cedeno passed the test.

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