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Unexpected leaders: A couple guys who took 2020 off are shining in 2021 for the Washington Nationals

Joe Ross, Ryan Zimmerman show the value of rest and concentration.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals
Joe Ross has found unexpected success this season after taking the COVID-shortened 2020 season off.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This is a story about a couple guys on the Washington Nationals who took last season off.

This wasn’t because they didn’t want to play baseball; quite to the contrary, the game runs deep in both of them.

Joe Ross and Ryan Zimmerman were considering more than their love of baseball when they opted out of the 2020 season because of the COVID pandemic. But now, nine games into the 2021 campaign, both have emerged as early-season successes on a team that looks like its just starting to catch up with the early leaders.

Who would have guessed that Joe Ross would have the Nationals’ longest streak of scoreless innings to start this season?

We’d all love to see World Series heroes Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg leading the team in zeroes right now, but instead, it’s Ross, whose last appearance before this season was in Game 5 of the 2019 World Series. Before Spring Training, he wasn’t a lock to make the starting rotation, competing for the No. 5 spot with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth.

Most of Ross’s immediate family are in the medical profession, and that’s what influenced him to take the 2020 season off.

Having gone through Tommy John surgery in 2017 and the ensuing rehabilitation, Ross knows what it’s like to battle back from injuries, so he also took the dangers of COVID seriously.

“With the medical professionals in my family — both my parents, my sister, some close family friends — it just kind of made sense I think to take this as serious as you could,” Joe Ross said in December while promoting a personal appearance. “There were a lot of unanswered questions I think kind of going into it. Not that we know everything now, obviously, but the initial shock value of what was happening kind of added up with a few other things, and I decided to take time away, which is always hard to do.”

Ross had to forgo his salary last season, although he has since avoided salary arbitration with the same 1-year/$1.5M deal he signed after the 2019 World Series.

While Fedde and Voth pitched their way out of the No. 5 job in Spring Training more than Ross nailed it down, two turns through the rotation, Ross has proven to be the most reliable starter.

“Kid didn’t pitch all last year, and he looked awesome today,” manager Davey Marrinez said after Ross tossed six scoreless innings in a 6-0 win over St. Louis. “We tried to get his pitch count up, tried to get him to that sixth inning, and he did great.”

In his 11 scoreless innings, Ross has allowed six hits and struck out nine, while walking only three.

“Right now he’s doing well, and we knew this, “ Martinez said. “I think he’s grown over the last year and a half of what he wants to do and how he wants to approach pitching and his routine. With that being said, I think he’s going to be a huge addition to our starting rotation, especially in that four or five slot.”

For Ross, it’s all about feeling healthy and pitching with confidence. Leading his team back after a humiliating 14-3 loss the night before was the proof.

“It feels good,” Ross said after Wednesday’s game. “We’ve had kind of a tough start here to our season, but I think we’re kind of turning it around, taking two out of three here, and then hopefully we can kind of just continue on, and have everyone firing kind of back in the normal rotation.”

Also absent from the Nationals’ roster last season was first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. It was the first season in 15 years that the man who’s been called “Mr. National” and “The Face of the Franchise.” wasn’t part of the team.

Zimmerman’s health and his family’s are his top priority. His mother, Cheryl, lives with multiple sclerosis, and his third child had been born just a few months before the 2020 season.

He cited those as his reasons for opting out of 2020, but he soon realized that he missed the game and his teammates, and by the end of the season, he was ready to get back on the field.

“I don’t think it was ever 100 percent, but I don’t think it was under, like, 95 percent,” Zimmerman in Spring Training. “Once I was hanging out at home and watching the games and getting into life without baseball, I think that number shot up to pretty close to 100% very quickly on my end.”

Like Ross, he agreed to the same deal he had opted out of the year before, in Zimmerman’s case, one year, $2 million.

He looked like the year off did him a world of good in Spring training, bashing Grapefruit League pitching at a clip of .455 with five home runs and 13 RBI.

He took that success into the regular season, hitting .346/.370/.870 through nine games, but it was Wednesday in St. Louis, when he hit his first home run of 2021, that Zimmerman felt like he was really back.

“I feel like I’ve had really good at bats for the most part. I’m swinging at strikes, which for me is the biggest thing,” Zimmerman said postgame. “I have confidence enough in myself that if they throw enough in the zone I’m going to do some damage.”

Zimmerman’s home run came after a nine-pitch at-bat against Cards’ starter Adam Wainwright, battling back from 0-2.

“Yeah, I mean he battled some tough pitches,” said Martinez. “Wainwright, he’s not an easy at bat, he’s still got pretty good stuff. Zim is just a professional hitter.

“He got the ball up and he was able to put a good swing on it and hit the ball out.”

Zimmerman said fighting back to fill the count was key.

“The more you can extend an at bat, the more you can force them to maybe throw a pitch that they don’t really want to throw, because you’ve now spoiled or fouled off a lot of the pitches that they planned to throw you.”

Are Ross and Zimmerman having so much success off the bat because they opted out last season or in spite of it? Or does last season’s inactivity have anything to do with it?

“I’m sure ‘rust’ is the word you can use, but it will be different with this extended time off,” Ross said in December. “But I think that at the same time it kind of gave my arm a break and I could use it to my advantage in the long run as far as being prepared for the season.”

“If I keep hitting the ball like I’ve been hitting it, I think things will start to get up in the air and kind of you’ll start seeing some extra base hits instead of singles,” said Zimmerman. “But I’m just happy with the start that I’ve got off to.”

With their unexpected success, Ross and Zimmerman now join expected leaders Juan Soto and Trea Turner as the main drivers of the team’s success so far. With the team returning to full strength, the Nats need the rest of the lineup and rotation to catch up.