For nearly two weeks, Ryan Zimmerman mostly sat on the Nationals bench, readying himself for pinch-hitting opportunities that often didn’t come. Yes, he started back-to-back games last week against the Blue Jays, but that was possible only because the Nats were facing an American League opponent and needed a designated hitter.
So when Zimmerman found himself in Sunday’s lineup against the Marlins, it represented his first start in a National League game since April 18. And given his lack of consistent playing time, it was fair to wonder if he might look rusty.
The answer: He did not. Not even close.
With a three-run homer to center field Sunday afternoon, Zimmerman both helped lead the Nats to a 3-1 victory and reminded everyone he’s still an awfully productive hitter, even when he isn’t playing regularly.
“He’s been great,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “He understands his role. When he gets an opportunity to play, he’s playing really well.”
Zimmerman’s opportunities have perhaps been fewer and farther between than initially expected. He started five of the Nationals’ first six games while Josh Bell was on the COVID-19 injured list, but he’s started only five of the next 18 games (and two of those were in the road series against the Blue Jays, with Bell serving as DH).
But Zimmerman hasn’t suffered as a result. He has recorded at least one hit in eight of his 10 starts. He’s already posted two three-hit games. And he has now homered in four of his last 25 at-bats.
“He prepares himself really well every day,” Martinez said. “He comes in, he makes sure he gets his swings, does a lot of different things with (hitting coach Kevin Long) in the cage to keep him ready. He’s always ready. We know Zim from playing every day. This is something new for him, but he’s taken to it really well.”
It’ll be a balancing act for Martinez the rest of the season as he attempts to keep Zimmerman healthy by not overplaying him while also making sure he stays sharp at the plate. Though his stats (.319/.347/.596, four homers, 10 RBIs) dwarf Bell’s numbers (.140/.219/.298, two homers, nine RBIs), Martinez has made it clear Bell is and will remain the team’s starting first baseman.
The situation brings to mind one of the great dilemmas early in the 2019 season: How to find ways to keep Howie Kendrick in the lineup without subjecting the veteran infielder to too much injury risk.
“We had another guy like that, as you know, with Howie,” Martinez said. “As much as I want to play these guys every day, we’ve got to keep an eye on him. We’ve got to keep him fresh. And we’ve got Josh Bell here now, who’s starting to swing the bat a lot better since he came off the IL. We’ve got to get him going, too, and keep him fresh.”