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Ryan Zimmerman leading the Washington Nationals’ SOBs in new role with club

Ryan Zimmerman is a tough SOB. Stud Off the Bench. Zim is also a leader of men, in a new role this season.

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Were you surprised to see Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington Nationals’ 36-year-old, 16-year veteran, collect three hits, one a three-run homer, run the bases with abandon (and smarts), and help lift the club to a come-from-behind win in Saturday’s afternoon’s matchup with the Baltimore Orioles in the nation’s capital? Why were you surprised? Seriously.

“That’s why we call him, ‘The Captain,’ manager Davey Martinez said after the club’s 12-9 win over the O’s.

“I put him out there. He gets a chance to play. He gets the job done, and he’s having a lot of fun. He really is. He’s enjoying what he’s doing.”

Zimmerman also remains a quiet leader of men.

“He speaks when he needs to and he carries this team, so kudos to him,” Martinez said.

Zimmerman’s 3 for 5 game left him with a .321/.354/.564 line* in 27 games (16 starts) and 82 plate appearances this season, which has seen him come off the bench and start when the matchups are favorable. The bench role is working out well for the veteran infielder.

[ed. note - “* = Zimmerman grounded out in a pinch hit appearance in Sunday’s game, leaving him with a .316.349.557 line on the season.”]

“Well, it helps not having to play every day to be honest with you,” Zimmerman said after his big game on Saturday. “The last four or five years when I was playing every day, and the injuries and things like that. It’s been nice to start a couple times a week and pinch hit, really be able to kind of take care of my body and do the most that I can to stay healthy, so when it is my chance to play I can produce.”

Zimmerman has a .318/.357/.530 line as a starter, and a .364/.364/.818 line in 11 PAs as a pinch hitter, with two of his four doubles on the season and one of his five home runs in pinch hit appearances.

Starting a few times a week has allowed Zimmerman, who has been beset by injuries in his 30s, to focus on staying healthy so he can be available when he’s called upon.

“You can’t get away with that when you’re supposed to be an everyday player,” Zimmerman said. “But the point I’m at in my career now, and this role, we’ve talked about it, it’s my role.

“It’s what I’m supposed to do. So I’ve kind of accepted it and I enjoy it. And I’m trying to be the best that I can at it.”

It is a new role though, and it’s taken some time to adjust to being a part-time player.

“I’m still learning every day how to get better,” Zimmerman said, “... and how to be a better pinch hitter. And on days that I’m not starting what I can do to stay sharp. So hopefully I can just continue to get better and better at it. But I’m enjoying it and I just feel a lot healthier and a lot more explosive than I have over the last 3-4 years, and it makes sense when I’m not playing every day.”

His teammates have noticed, and they appreciate the hard work they see Zimmerman doing at this stage in his career.

“The ultimate team player, for one,” Josh Harrison said after a 1 for 2 day on Saturday, which saw him hit his first career grand slam. “‘Mr. National’, that’s what we call him. You look at what he’s done. His track record speaks for itself and to come into this season and have that role, he’s shown what it is to be a professional. And at the same time also stand ready, because just because you’re not starting every day doesn’t mean that you might not get a big at bat or a big pinch hit, whatever the case may be.

“It’s refreshing to see, because you got a guy that’s doing it as long as him and still producing, it’s definitely refreshing and I’m excited for him.”

Jon Lester, 37, and in his 16th season as well, has had an opportunity to get an up-close look at Zimmerman after admiring his game from afar for the last 16 years.

“I think just I feel like he’s been a guy that’s done it year in and year out,” Lester said. “I think sometimes those guys get overlooked. I think the consistent guys get overlooked, and kind of taken for granted. He’s meant so much to this organization. Obviously the respect across the way, playing against him for however many years, just a solid big leaguer that’s done it for a long time. And I don’t think really, if you ask anybody in that clubhouse if they’re surprised by his production, I think everybody expects him to be the consummate pro and go out there and do — whenever his name is called upon to give good at bats and play first for us.

“It’s awesome to see him do that today and pick us up for that W.”

In addition to his on-field exploits, Zimmerman has helped to organize his fellow bench bats to try to do what they can to excel in what’s a legitimately difficult role. You might have seen those “SOB” t-shirts Zimmerman, and others, like veteran utility player Jordy Mercer wore in batting practice over the last few days. If you don’t already know, it doesn’t stand for what you think it stands for.

“It’s the guys off the bench,” Zimmerman explained. “It stands for, ‘Studs Off the Bench.’ So before anyone gets mad at anyone thinking that it stands for something worse — we’ve kind of embraced — there’s a group of four or five guys that — it’s hard to come off the bench in the big leagues. And it’s hard to pinch hit and it’s hard to be productive, and we’ve kind of taken it as a challenge, and we’re going to go at it together as a group. And you spend a lot of time down in the cage area from basically the second or third inning on, because you never know when it’s going to be your turn, so we hang out a bunch down there, and we talk every day and we figured it would be fun to make a shirt with some of our sayings and some of our things, to kind of stick together, and we’re 2-0 since we got the shirts, so I’m sure it’s all the shirt’s fault.”

“He has rallied those guys, and it’s a tough job,” Martinez said on Sunday morning, before the finale of the series with the Orioles in Nationals Park.

“Something I explained to Zim, you know, when he knew he was going to come off the bench and have to pinch hit and stuff, it’s not easy. It’s a tough role. You’re getting put in a situation, usually in a big moment, and you got to be ready, and he’s a guy right now that’s embraced it and has talked to a lot of our young players about it and how it’s one opportunity that you’re going to get to change the game. He’s done well with those guys, and I think they got a little club that they got working on now, a bench club, or something like that, so it’s pretty fun.”

Who’s in this group? Is it just an exclusive bench player thing? That’s not what a leader does, is it? Who’s behind this? How many fibers are intertwined in a shredded wheat biscuit? Who ordered the shirts?

“I don’t know who placed the order for the shirts,” Zimmerman said. “I know Jordy [Mercer] was one of the leaders of getting it done. But I mean the main — me, Jordy, Stevie [Andrew Stevenson], Yadi [Yadiel Hernández], [Alex] Avila are the main bench guys, and if you get a pinch hit, like J-Hay [Josh Harrison] got a pinch hit the other day, then you get a shirt. You got to earn it. You don’t just give these shirts away.”