WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There was a lot of talk and speculation on sports radio and around Nationals Park when Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper came off the disabled list June 30 after missing 57 games with a left thumb sprain.
What would his return mean for Ryan Zimmerman? A Gold Glove winner at third base in 2009 Zimmerman had played in left field at times this year with Harper on the DL.
First-year manager Matt Williams speculated that Zimmerman could see time at third base, left field and first base once Harper returned.
It has been nearly a month, and Zimmerman has been a regular at third base for the Nationals (53-43). Washington is a season-high 10 games better than .500 following a 5-4 comeback, walk-off win at Nationals Park July 20 against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Nationals are now tied for first in the National League East with the Atlanta Braves.
There have been some hold-your-breath moments at third for Zimmerman, who has had shoulder problems in the past.
He had a throwing error in the second inning July 20 on a short flip to second base. That error allowed the Brewers' Mark Reynolds, Zimmerman's friend and former teammate at the University of Virginia, to reach second base on a fielder's choice off the bat of Jean Segura.
The Nationals managed to get out of that bases-loaded jam without allowing a run as starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez struck out the next two batters. That may have been one of the keys to the game. The Brewers tied the game in the top of the ninth against closer Rafael Soriano, then Jayson Werth drove in the game-winning run with a double down the left-field line to score Anthony Rendon in the bottom of the ninth.
Although the Nationals may hold their breath when the ball is hit to Zimmerman, there is little doubt his presence in the batting order has made Washington a potent club.
Washington, with the best winning percentage in the NL, is now 31-19 with Zimmerman in the starting lineup going into a road game July 21 at Colorado. The Nationals are averaging nearly five runs per game when Williams writes Zimmerman's names on his lineup card.
The Nationals are 22-24 without Zimmerman in the starting lineup, and without him, they average 3.5 runs per game.
Zimmerman had two hits and three RBIs during an 8-3 win against the Brewers July 19. The Nationals scored five runs in the first inning after losing the first game of the series July 18 by a score of 4-2.
"It's pretty obvious; anytime you get runs like that [early], it is nice," said Zimmerman, one of five Washington players with at least two hits July 19. "Getting a lot of runs in the first inning is definitely a big help. We got some timely hits, like we didn't yesterday."
Zimmerman then had a two-run home run to tie the game July 20. He is now hitting .287 with five homers and 35 RBIs in 188 at bats.
He is part of a balanced lineup, which has a 44-point difference between the top hitter (Zimmerman) and the lowest (shortstop Ian Desmond, at .243).
Although Zimmerman's throws from third may be suspect, his presence in the lineup has the Nationals on the upswing as they head on a road trip to Colorado, Cincinnati and Miami.
NOTES: Right-hander Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90 ERA) will start for the Nationals July 21 at Colorado against Franklin Morales (5-4, 5.26) of the Rockies. … Jordan Zimmermann is slated to pitch July 22 for the Nationals during his first start since the All-Star break. … Rockies All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki did not play July 20 because of a leg cramp. He was a college teammate at Long Beach with Danny Espinosa, an infielder with the Nationals. … Rockies pitcher Eddie Butler, from Radford University in Virginia, was optioned to the minor leagues July 19 to Double-A Tulsa. … Colorado outfielder Michael Cuddyer, from the Tidewater region of Virginia, remains on the DL with a left shoulder strain. He is hitting .317 in 120 at bats and has not played since June 5. … Colorado infielder Charlie Culberson played in the minors in Richmond, Va., while with the San Francisco Giants' system in 2011.