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Washington Nationals' Improved Defense Starts With A Healthy Ryan Zimmerman At Third Base

Remember that diving play that Ryan Zimmerman made in the first inning of the Washington Nationals' Opening Day win over the Miami Marlins? Davey Johnson does, and the Nats' skipper said it was possible because the 28-year-old infielder is able to play deeper at third with his surgically-repaired shoulder.


Though he remained in the lineup and took cortisone shots to do so, Ryan Zimmerman made some changes to compensate for the shoulder issue which plagued him throughout the 2012 campaign. As Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo explained it in an MLB Network Radio interview from Viera, Florida's Space Coast Stadium, the one-time Gold Glove winning infielder was in the process this Spring of getting back to his old self defensively at third base. Last year Zimmerman found any arm slot he could throw from without pain. "Now it feels good," Rizzo told the MLB Network's Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette, "He's free, he's gone through a lot of throwing drills and now he's high 3/4s with a good finish and strong arm stroke."

"[Zimmerman's] feet are as good as I've seen and his hands are as good as I've seen, and previous to the shoulder he had a solid arm too." - Mike Rizzo on Ryan Zimmerman on MLB Network Radio

"[Zimmerman's] feet are as good as I've seen and his hands are as good as I've seen," Rizzo continued, "and previous to the shoulder he had a solid arm too. You know, he made a lot of adjustments, positioning on the field where he'd play closer than he would normally and really relied on his really goalie-like hands and he could pick it and, of course, when he was on the run he was as good as anybody. It was the play where he had to take a step back or backhand and really come over top and let it rip where he was having [a] problem because he had some constriction in the shoulder."

"I can play a little bit deeper now, and [I] don't have to charge everything. Can take a step back..." - Ryan Zimmerman on playing with a surgically-repaired shoulder

The Nationals' '05 1st Round pick explained some of the changes he was forced to make in his own MLB Network Radio interview last month. When he threw to first, Zimmerman said he was, "... doing whatever it kind of took to hopefully get it over there." After the surgery, however, he said he was, "... able to have a more natural motion." In terms of positioning, Zimmerman explained, "I can play a little bit deeper now, and [I] don't have to charge everything. Can take a step back, and -- cause I've never had a problem catching the ball, obviously catching is not the big deal -- it's just a matter of getting it over there with the shoulder and things like that, so now, being able to play a little bit deeper, take my time, not have to kind of charge everything, just take it easy and relax, I think, obviously, it's going to be a lot more beneficial for me."

"You guys probably haven't even noticed it, but, because his shoulder's better, he plays deeper." - Davey Johnson on Ryan Zimmerman at third

Three games into the 2013 campaign, Davey Johnson said he's seen improved defense from the team as a whole and he's seen Zimmerman making adjustments defensively that resulted in at least one run-saving play at third base. "It's kind of hard to improve on the infield," the Nats' 70-year-old manager said, "But the infield is improved because Zim's healthier over there. You guys probably haven't even noticed it, but, because his shoulder's better, he plays deeper."

Asked how much deeper Zimmerman was playing, Johnson said, "It's noticeable to me. I mean, I think it gives you maybe another yard of range." That extra range, the Nationals' manager agreed, may have been the difference on Opening Day, when Zimmerman made a diving play on a sharp grounder toward third by Placido Polanco with Juan Pierre at third two outs after singling. Had it gone through the Marlins would have taken a 1-0 lead early. Instead Zimmerman made a diving play and throw that ended Stephen Strasburg's first inning.

It made a big difference for the Nats' starter. "It's great," Strasburg told reporters after the game, "Obviously it was an amazing play and one that he's done time and time again. I think going out there and getting through the first inning with no damage, that was huge and it kind of got that one out of the way and then were able to just roll after that."

In the post game press conference after the Nationals' Opening Day win, Davey Johnson said the play Zimmerman made was like many he's seen from his third baseman. "I've seen so many he's done," the manager told reporters, "That it's almost common nature around here, but he had a heck of a ballgame. That play kept them from scoring a run, that was outstanding. And he looks free and easy over there throwing the ball to first."

The Nats' manager said he has a better infield defense and better defense in the outfield as well. "You've swapped out Michael Morse for [Denard] Span. You've got basically three center fielders out there who can play center out in the outfield. It's a little better than having a second baseman [Steve Lombardozzi] or first baseman [Tyler Moore] in left." A healthy Zimmerman. An improved outfield. And even the catching's improved with Wilson Ramos healthy and Kurt Suzuki sharing the duties. "I can't really go wrong there," Johnson said, "Both call a good game, both block the ball as good as anyone I've ever had. Both are good throwers."

Davey Johnson, the Nationals and their improved defense are off to a 3-0 start.