In a few short weeks, the Washington Nationals will be making their first playoff appearance since moving to the nation’s capital in 2005. It will also mark the first time the franchise has made it into post-season play since the 1981 season when they were the Montreal Expos and had an offense fueled by Andre Dawson. While the Nationals entered the All-Star break at a very solid 49-34 (good for a .590 winning percentage), they’ve since gone 41-24 (.631) en route to running away with the NL East and ensuring the aforementioned playoff berth. The reason for their sustained — and even increased — success in the second half? Well, there are lots of them actually; the Nationals are an extremely good team as it turns out. But some credit has to be given to franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman, who has rebounded wonderfully after a woeful first half.
Without a doubt, Ryan Zimmerman had already established himself as one of the game’s most all-around players before coming into this season, so no one should be surprised that he’s come around so noticeably since the All-Star break. After suffering through an injury marred 2011 season that saw him hit just .289/.355/.443, the 27-year-old started off this year in similarly disappointing fashion. At the break, he was struggling with right shoulder woes and carrying an OPS just under the .700 mark. Thanks to a season-changing cortisone shot on June 24, however, the second half has been a different story, and Washington’s third baseman has been a force to be reckoned with, posting an OPS near 1.000 since the break.
Although Zimmerman required yet another cortisone shot before yesterday’s double header against the Dodgers and is looking like a probable candidate for an off-season shoulder operation, the Nationals are fortunate to feature his resurgent bat in their lineup as they head into their first post-season appearance ever. While no one can argue with their outstanding starting rotation, the team’s offense does not have a standout middle-of-the-order presence without Zimmerman, and he’s as vital to a deep playoff run as any other player on the roster.
That isn’t to suggest that Washington doesn’t have a good offense. Thanks to Ian Desmond‘s new-found power presence, Jayson Werth‘s bounce back campaign, Bryce Harper‘s constantly rising star, and Mike Morse‘s general hugeness, this team has the ability to put together runs in a hurry at times. Before last night’s double header, the Nationals ranked fifth in the National League with 653 runs scored and fourth in OPS (.746). As capable as they are together at times, though, there isn’t a more imposing bat than that of the player who posted back-to-back nearly .900 OPS seasons just a few years ago.
Then, obviously, there is the pitching. Collectively, Washington pitchers have combined for 20.2 WAR on the season, good for third behind only the Rangers and Tigers. Whoever faces off against this team in the playoffs is unlikely to get many runs across the board — that much is practically certain. Assuming an offense powered by a fully-functioning Zimmerman accompanies the high-octane pitching in the playoffs, the Nationals may be looking at a very deep playoff run indeed. Considering Zimmerman’s debut came in 2005, the same season the franchise moved from Montreal, it’s only fitting to give the longest tenured player on the team the credit he deserves, and to acknowledge that he is a huge key to the team’s continued success.