Three hundred fifty-six days had passed since Ryan Zimmerman last took the field for an organized game of baseball. The world was a lot different back on March 10, 2020, when the Nationals faced the Marlins in Jupiter, Fla. Though the coronavirus was in the news, nobody imagined it would have the power to shut down the entire country two days later.
So much has happened since then, and so much has changed. Yet when he trotted out to first base just after 1 p.m. today in West Palm Beach for the Nats’ spring home opener against the Astros, Zimmerman felt no different than he did the 15 previous times he took the field for his first game of the spring, dating all the way to 2006 in Viera.
If anyone knows the routine at this point, it’s Zimmerman. And his 2021 debut this afternoon felt perfectly routine.
“I’ve kind of said all along the timing for spring training really hasn’t been all that different,” he said during a Zoom session with reporters after departing the Nationals’ 7-6 loss at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. “Missing playing the games in the middle (last summer) was obviously different. But being down here February into early March, having the timeline of knowing when to be ready, that was all normal. Everything feels good.”
Zimmerman’s results in his first game certainly had to feel good. The 36-year-old first baseman came up to bat twice, drawing a walk and homering to left field. He played three innings in the field and made a nice scoop of a low throw from Carter Kieboom near the third base line.
“Just getting him back out on the field was awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He had a good day today.”
The home run - Zimmerman’s first since Game 1 of the 2019 World Series off former Houston ace Gerrit Cole - came off sidearm reliever Steve Cishek and came in the middle of a barrage of Nationals blasts in succession by Josh Harrison, Zimmerman and Yadiel Hernández.
“Cishek’s not an easy guy to face,” Zimmerman said. “I thought we had a bunch of good at-bats before that as well. I was just happy to see some pitches, get into a couple good hitting counts. Seeing a sidearm righty is good for me this early. Just simplify things. Got into a 3-2 count, and he hung a slider and I put a good swing on it.”
Zimmerman’s return has been a welcome presence around Nationals camp this spring, and it’s not simply for his leadership in the clubhouse. He still brings a set of skills to the field the team believes will be valuable, even in a role off the bench.
Among those skills: his ability to pick bad throws at first base, as he did today on Kieboom’s long throw from behind third base.
“That’s huge,” Martinez said. “Carter made a nice play, threw it short and (Zimmerman) was able to go pick it over there. That’s awesome, man. He’s a good defender. Just seeing him on the field, we were all ecstatic.”
Most important from Zimmerman’s perspective was the fact he felt good physically at the end of his three innings: “I’ll be sore, like I always am,” he said, and he meant it in a good way.
Having gone through this process more than enough times over the years, the 36-year-old understands how to build himself up early in camp. But he also knows there are certain things that can only be accomplished in a game: sprinting to cover first base on a grounder to his right, chasing down foul balls near the dugout.
“You can train as hard as you want, you can be in the best shape, whatever you want to say,” he said. “Until you get a few of these four- or five-inning games under your belt, and until you stretch it out to like six or seven innings, that kind of goes away.”