Ryan Zimmerman played in his first game since April 12th today, making his major league debut in left field, but he wasn’t the only Zimmerman(n) who came back tonight.
Eight shutout innings from Jordan Zimmermann, who had been struggling this season, led the way for the Washington Nationals (28-28) tonight, as they jumped all over David Buchanan and the Philadelphia Phillies (24-32) en route to a 7-0 drubbing.
Zimmerman’s first game in left field could not have gone better. Though he was once arguably the best defensive third baseman in baseball, arm troubles turned him into one of the worst, and he took the move to left with incredible professionalism and grace. He was not particularly challenged tonight, catching two balls that even Michael Morse could have gotten to. But the dividends the move paid were clear.
Danny Espinosa, who would have otherwise been booted from the lineup, had a great game, going 2-for-4 and making a pair of great plays to rob Phillies of hits. Anthony Rendon played good defense at third, firing some bullet throws that might have caused some anxiety had they leapt from Zimmerman’s hand. He was also 1-for-4 with a home run and a walk, demonstrating the necessity of keeping his bat in the lineup.
At the plate, Zimmerman seemed as comfortable as ever. He went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles, an RBI, and one loud out that made it to the warning track in front of the GEICO sign in center. Since he had been so hot in the beginning of the season before his injury, he is now hitting .379/.415/.676. That’s a nice line to plug into the batting order.
“We saw tonight what he can do offensively,” said Manager Matt Williams.
Indeed, it seemed Zimmerman’s hitting prowess was contagious. In addition to Espinosa’s two hits and Rendon’s round-tripper, Denard Span was 3-for-5 with three runs scored, Ian Desmond hit a solo bomb, and Jayson Werth clocked a ground rule double with the bases loaded in the third inning.
Zim’s aura even helped the team hit with runners in scoring position: a 3-for-11 day (.273) might be pedestrian to most, but the Nats will take it any day.
Zimmermann (W, 4-2), who entered the game with an uncharacteristic 4.07 ERA, made sure the offense had nothing to worry about in submitting his best start of the year. He went eight innings, allowing no runs on five hits, a walk, and four strikeouts. He entered tonight’s game on a streak of lackluster starts, having allowed three or more runs in four straight appearances, but he found himself tonight. His dominance cut nearly half a run from his ERA, dropping it all the way to 3.59.
Williams thought the key to Zimmermann’s success was the use of his slider, a pitch he’s had trouble with this season. “He threw a lot of sliders today for strikes … It hasn’t been consistent. Tonight it was really consistent.” Statistically, the root of Zimmermann’s struggles has been suggested to be a high rate of hard-hit balls. Perhaps a limited repertoire with one lackluster pitch allowed hitters to get more comfortable with what he has thrown them. Of course, tonight, he showed what he’s capable of when his arsenal is on.
The Nats are now winners of three of their last four, and the offense has eaten pitchers like Colby Lewis, Nick Tepesch, and Buchanan alive. They wilted against Yu Darvish, but so would many; tomorrow’s game against established veteran A.J. Burnett will be another crucial data point to see where this offense is.
With his three hits today, Span is suddenly hitting .281/.324/.386. His OPS of .710 leaves something to be desired, but he has come alive after an ice-cold start, and it’s no coincidence that the Nats’ offense has done the same.
After his home run today, Desmond’s offensive numbers are all the more perplexing. He is hitting .228/.295/.419, good for a not-atrocious .714 OPS. He has just seven hits in his last 34 at bats, or a .206 batting average, but four of those hits are home runs. He’s walking more than ever this year, almost a percentage point above last season’s career-high 6.6%, but he’s also striking out a shocking 27.0% of the time, up from 22% last season. This warrants further examination, with stats like Z-Swing%, but is still noteworthy on its own.