I can’t say I was expecting much of an exciting game when I tuned into yesterdays game in Washington. The Nationals were sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face a Reds lineup minus both Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, batting Skip Schumaker in the two hole, and playing Brayan Pena at first base. Cincinnati meanwhile, had their hopes pinned to the perennially underrated Mike Leake, who would be looking to shut down a Washington lineup without Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman. A high run total was not to be expected then, though a nice pitcher’s duel was in play.
Alas! Though they both pitched plenty well enough, combining for 13.2 innings and just 3 runs allowed, neither Strasburg nor Leake really had their best stuff working – Strasburg for example, only had 4 strikeouts against a team which employs both Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart.
Still, on a night during which there were only four other games being played (bad job by the folks at MLB, especially considering there wasn’t a single day game), the game turned out more than alright as a spectacle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it went 15 innings (though unfortunately, no position player pitched – shout out to Drew Butera!). Secondly, minus one embarrassing drop by Jayson Werth, some of the defensive plays made were spectacular.
From the very first pitch of the evening, the standard was set; echoing Tyler Moore‘s play to rob Eric Young Jr. the night before, Wilson Ramos laid out, catcher’s equipment and all, to snag a pop-up bunt off the bat of Billy Hamilton.
Cincinnati would be up by two by the time the next highlight defensive stop occurred, a diving stop made by who else but Brandon Phillips. Now I’ve got on Phillips’ attitude before as an angry Reds fan, and his production at the dish has certainly dropped off the last couple of years despite his huge 2013 RBI(zzzzzz) total indicating otherwise, but boy can he still play the deuce effectively. He makes robbing Danny Espinosa‘s hard-hit groundball look easy. Of course (after the Nats had got on the board), in the very next frame – the top of the eighth – Espinosa would get some measure of revenge, making arguably an even better play at the keystone to deny Todd Frazier, and keep Washington’s deficit at one.
Neither highlight however, would ultimately be the crowning fielding moment of the night. Because first, in the bottom of the twelfth with runners on first and third and two outs, Phillips would top his earlier effort with an incredible pounce on a Wilson Ramos liner behind the bag at second, preserving the game for the Reds.
Poor Anthony Rendon must have thought he’d won it with a runner on third ready to stroll home. Hamilton however, quickly put an end to those dreams, ending the inning in the process.
Frazier would finally provide the breakthrough in the fifteenth, blasting a two-run homer over the right field wall off Ross Detwiler, and after Washington only managed one in response in the bottom of the inning, after nearly five hours (4.58 if you’re picky), the game was concluded – the Reds eking it out 4-3.
Having gone to the gym and back in the meanwhile, by then I didn’t care much about the result. I’d gone into the game not expecting much after all, just hoping that the Reds could pull it out, inch back closer to .500, and make up some ground in the NL Central. What I got then, was a pleasant surprise. With the big-names out, and the pitching merely above-average, I’d been treated to a thriller.
All because of some defense.
Finally, there appears to be some resolution in the nation’s capital. After saying on Sunday that Ryan Zimmerman merely had inflammation in his right shoulder, not structural damage, and that he expected the 29-year-old to remain at the hot corner for the remainder of the season, new Nationals manager Matt Williams admitted to 106.7 The Fan FM on Monday night that his third baseman actually has an arthritic shoulder, and might soon see time at first base if the move were to keep him off the DL.
Williams’ admission came off the back of another ghastly throwing error by Zimmerman in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, an errant toss that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach on what was an otherwise routine grounder, a run to score on the play, and the floodgates to open; Stephen Strasburg would allow another run in the frame on a Julio Teheran single and four more in the fifth, knocking him from the game as the Nats fell to their 15th loss to the Braves in their last 21 games against their division rivals.
That particular play on Saturday was a microcosm of the struggles Zimmerman has experienced since undergoing major shoulder surgery in November 2012. Previously an excellent defender – he averaged 11.1 UZR per year between 2007 to 2010, winning the NL Gold Glove award in ’09 – Zimmerman’s fielding value had already dropped off from its Evan Longoria/Adrian Beltre-like peak to a more league-average level during 2011-2012, before falling off a cliff last year; his horrific 2013 mark of -14.0 UZR in 1245.2 innings wasn’t far off the -16.8 number put up by the statuesque Miguel Cabrera, the loopy throws resulting from his sidearm motion frequently pulling Adam LaRoche off the first base bag – and occasionally putting the first couple of rows of spectators in danger too. Playing shallower in order to shorten his throws to first didn’t help his rating much either; as Davey Johnson picked up on last year, Zimmerman’s taking a couple of strides closer to the batter has severely diminished his range, allowing more ground balls to get by than ever, and additionally dragging Ian Desmond further over from short.
Within a couple of years then, the Nationals have witnessed their star groundball-vacuum become a complete defensive liability. It’s not like the Nats can simply bench Zimmerman either. Since becoming the first player the Nationals took in the draft after the team relocated to Washington, chosen out of the University of Virginia with the fourth overall pick in 2005, he has been the rock of their lineup, collecting two Silver Slugger awards on his way to a career .286/.352/.477 triple slash line. Throw in his six-year, $100 million contract extension – signed after an injury-shortened 2011, but only kicking in this past week – which will lock him through his age-34 season too, and it’s clear Washington aren’t about to declare Zimmerman simply a sunk cost.
All things considered, there’s never been a greater time to move Zimmerman to first base; positional incumbent Adam LaRoche isn’t the player who the Nats re-signed after a monster 2012, and is in the last year of his contract. Anthony Rendon played third in college, so could feasibly slide around from second. Danny Espinosa, benched last year in favor of Rendon, could ably fill in at the keystone. On days facing lefties, such a construction might actually be an improvement given how Espinosa has hit southpaws better than LaRoche (he has a .258 average, .332 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage as compared to LaRoche’s .244/.300/.429 line).
Yes there are downsides to such a plan – the team would be dreadfully thin in terms on infield depth, LaRoche would be wasted, and there would be extra pressure on Zimmerman’s bat at the less physically-, but more statistically-demanding position of first – but at this point, after putting off such a move last year, the transition is long overdue. . Putting his shoulder, and therefore his bat, and thus the $100 million still owed to him, back at third is a recipe for disaster – and not just for those fans behind first. Even with the ascension of Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, not to mention the addition of Jayson Werth, the Nationals still need Zimmerman; though he might not be the franchise cornerstone of a couple of years ago, he is still a vital part of their offense – and someone crucial to their chances as a postseason contender.
Williams’ words today then mark a welcome recognition of an inconvenient truth. Whether he follows through in committing to such a less-than-ideal situation remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure; the ticket holders behind first base will be grateful if he does.