Reporting David Elfin
Not only will the Washington Nationals be playing in mid-October for the first time in franchise history, they’ll have prime candidates for just about every award available.
Right hander Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16 earned run average, 197 strikeouts in 159-1/3 innings after pitching in just five games since Tommy John surgery on his right elbow two Septembers ago) is a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
So is right fielder Jayson Werth, who’s hitting .305 a year after he managed just a .232 average in his first season in Washington after leaving Philadelphia for a seven-year, $126 million contract.
Ryan Zimmerman won’t be mentioned for Comeback Player of the Year. After all, the third baseman’s .284 average is lower than it was in 2011 or in 2009 and 2010, the seasons in which he was chosen for the National League’s Silver Slugger team.
But even though Strasburg was stellar before being shut down for the year to protect his elbow and Werth has been super despite missing nearly three months with a broken wrist, to my mind, Zimmerman is Washington’s Comeback Kid (to borrow Bill Clinton’s old nickname).
Consider that when Zimmerman showed up at Camden Yards on June 24, he was in a 5-for-48 tailspin. He was hitting a meek .218 with only three homers and 22 RBI in 55 games, one more than a third of a season. He had missed 14 games with pain in his right shoulder, the one that launched so many of the throws that made him Washington’s only Gold Glove winner back in 2009.
That day in Baltimore, Zimmerman was given another pain-numbing cortisone shot in the shoulder. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI against the Orioles and hasn’t stopped slugging since.
From the afternoon of the shot through last Sunday, Zimmerman played in 81 games. That’s half a season. His numbers during that span were MVP-worthy: a .327 average, 20 homers (which projects to 40 for a full year) and 67 RBI (which projects to 134). The latter would also be a record for the franchise including its 36 years in Montreal. Only three times did a Nat/Expo hit more than 40 homers and only seven times did a Nat/Expo bat higher than .327.
Despite his struggles through June 23, Zimmerman trails first baseman Adam LaRoche by just four RBI (94 to 98) for the team lead and is just one homer behind shortstop Ian Desmond (24 to 25) for the runner-up spot behind LaRoche’s 32. Zimmerman’s .284 average ranks third among the seven Nats who have at least 300 at-bats for Washington, trailing Desmond’s .294 and left fielder Michael Morse’s .289.
Zimmerman’s 91 runs are second to center fielder Bryce Harper’s 94 and his 34 doubles trail only second baseman Danny Espinosa’s 37.
While Zimmerman has committed 18 errors, the second-most of his seven seasons, most have been bad throws that were shoulder-related. His fielding has been highlight reel material as usual.
Most important, the Nats, who were 41-28 when Zimmerman got the shot, are 54-31 since with him in the lineup (they lost the two games he rested).
As the only player who has been part of the franchise’s entire Washington tenure thanks to his September 2005 call-up from the minors, no one is enjoying the rise from sub-.500 ne’er-do-wells to the majors’ best record than the soft-spoken Zimmerman, the first draft choice in Nats history.
Zimmerman turns 28 tomorrow. While he’ll almost surely be ignored when the Nats compete for postseason awards such as Comeback Player, Cy Young (Gio Gonzalez), Rookie of the Year (Harper), Manager of the Year (Davey Johnson) and Gold Glove/Silver Slugger (Desmond), there’s no doubt that Zimmerman’s incredible performance over the last three-plus months is a major reason why the Nats have become a powerhouse and a favorite to win the World Series.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin