Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
John Lannan labored as the night went on, but he was bailed out by a robust lineup.
It was only two weeks ago that Zimmerman was still recovering from his second hamstring strain of the young season, a nagging injury that kept him out of the lineup for 12 of the Nats' first 23 games.
For some players, that kind of prolonged layoff (especially so early in the year) would necessitate several more weeks of game action to get back into peak form. Almost like a second spring training.
For Zimmerman, the transition has been seamless. And with one of the best offensive performances of his career tonight -- 3-for-5, two homers, six RBI in the Nationals' 14-6 thumping of the Rockies -- Zim proved once again that he plays in a stratosphere reserved for only the sport's elite.
Of course, this is a guy who stepped to the plate in Philadelphia after a five-day layoff last month and still managed to club a game-winning homer.
"The good thing about my injury before was, I could still hit," he said. "If I wouldn't have been able to hit anything for a week, I think it would have been difficult. But I was able to stay on top and stay sharp, so when I did come back I wouldn't really miss that much."
Based on Zimmerman's overall stat line, you'd never know he was sidelined that much. He leads the Nationals in homers (eight), doubles (11) and total bases (65) and is tied with Josh Willingham with 22 RBI. Since returning from the second hamstring injury April 30, he's reaching base at a .379 clip and slugging .745, having smacked six home runs in 13 games.
In case anyone forgot amid all the attention going to Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps and Livan Hernandez and Ivan Rodriguez, Zimmerman remains the best player on this team. Sometimes, we tend to take that for granted, even if Jim Riggleman insists he doesn't.
"As good as Ryan is, it's never taken for granted you're going to go out there and produce," the manager said. "Because it's always a tough challenge."
Speaking of tough challenges, John Lannan sure faced one tonight. As difficult as it is to come back from 10 days' rest with elbow inflammation, try doing it in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Coors Field, in cold and rainy conditions.
For four innings, Lannan managed to overcome all those obstacles and pitch effectively, even if he wasn't in top form. Through the fourth, he had allowed only two hits, nary a run. But in some ways, his teammates' four-run rally in the top of the fifth derailed his evening. While sitting cold on the bench during that prolonged half-inning, Lannan felt his arm begin to stiffen up.
"I tried to heat it, stretch it, and it just wouldn't loosen up for me," he said. "When that happens, it's kind of hard for me to finish up my pitches."
The difference in the fifth inning was dramatic. Lannan faced six batters. Four reached, and the two that didn't still hit line drives. So Riggleman pulled his starter one out shy of qualifying for the win.
"The first four, I felt good," Lannan said. "And then it tightened up. When that happens, it's kind of tough to control, to really extend. My ball was up, and I wasn't able to make big pitches when I needed to."
Lannan insisted he still comes out of this game encouraged. He said he wasn't in any pain. He completed his postgame exercises with no problems. He expects the arm to feel fine tomorrow when he wakes up.
His manager will withhold judgment for another 24 hours.
"I'll be more confident if he tells me tomorrow he feels fine," Riggleman said. "I'm not going to assume anything until I talk to him tomorrow. That will be the test."
The Nationals can't afford for Lannan's injury to linger. And even if he's healthy, they can't afford for him to pitch the way he has so far this season (a 6.51 ERA, 75 baserunners in 37 1/3 innings). With Hernandez dominating and Stephen Strasburg on the way, they may not need Lannan to serve as staff ace. But they do need him to serve as a key member of the rotation, one who gives his team a chance to win every time out.
Lannan didn't do that tonight. He was saved by an explosive offense that scored a season-high 14 runs and finally enjoyed a lopsided victory following eight straight games decided by two runs or less.
For that, he can thank Zimmerman most of all. We may take him for granted sometimes, but there's a certain comfort in knowing your best all-around player is at the absolute top of his game right now.