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Ryan Zimmerman embracing new role in left field amid Nationals' surge

Ryan Zimmerman has become the Nationals' primary leftfielder since returning from injury. (Alex Brandon/AP)Ryan Zimmerman has become the Nationals' primary left fielder since returning from injury. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The contrast is striking. On the west coast, a star is brooding about being moved to left field, and nobody, least of all the manager, seems to know the plan if and when the underachieving team ever returns to full strength. On the east coast, another star has embraced his shift to the same position just in time to coincide with his team's surge into first place — however temporary the move may be.

The west coast story you're familiar with by now; that's Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. The east coast version stars Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. The situations aren't exactly parallel, but as injuries — the former's non-throwing shoulder and ankle, the latter's throwing shoulder — have taken a bite out of their skills, the pair, both financially secure for life thanks to nine-figure contracts running late into this decade, have reacted differently. The former's growing pains have been magnified by the media spotlight that comes with playing in Los Angeles for the game's most expensive team, while the latter's have been overshadowed by his team finally living up to expectations.

In Wednesday night's win over the Giants, Zimmerman made a key, run-saving defensive play, a diving catch of Brandon Crawford's fly ball to close out the sixth inning. The catch prevented Mike Morse from scoring from second base to cut into a 4-1 lead, and it was the last out recorded by flagging starter Tanner Roark, who yielded a pair of singles to begin the next frame before departing:

[mlbvideo id="33645421" width="600" height="336" /]

The victory wasn't just the Nationals' third straight at AT&T Park over the team with the majors' best record; it was the team's 10th in 12 games dating back to May 30. It left Washington with sole possession of first place in the NL East for the first time since April 11, when they were knocked off their perch amid a three-game sweep by the Braves.

The 29-year-old Zimmerman got off to a hot start this season, hitting .364/.405/.636 with a pair of homers in the team's first 11 games, but even as he was doing so, his longstanding throwing woes, the product of an arthritic right shoulder, led the team to begin working him out at first base. A broken thumb sustained on April 12 while diving into second base on a pickoff play sent him to the sidelines for 51 days, and during that time, the team lost Bryce Harper to a torn ligament in his left thumb, requiring surgery that will keep him out until July.

Zimmerman's absence allowed Anthony Rendon to shift back to his natural position, third base, and he has flourished relative to his uneven work at second; meanwhile, he's emerged as an offensive force, hitting .272/.332/.464 for a 118 OPS+, up from 100 as a rookie. His move allowed Danny Espinosa to climb back into the lineup at second, and while his offense has been nothing to write home about (.226/.290/.379 with a 72/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio), his defense has been solid. That said, the team still ranks 13th in the league in defensive efficiency (.681) and Defensive Runs Saved (+2).

Harper's absence — and the struggles of fill-ins Nate McLouth and Tyler Moore — led the Nationals to hatch a new plan, with Zimmerman taking fly balls in left field. Thanks to his natural athleticism, he's adapted to the position quickly, and as recently as a week ago — after just three games in the outfield — it appeared as though his days at the hot corner were in the rearview mirror, at least in his own mind. Via the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore

“I don’t know if I’ll end up [in left field]. I don’t know if I’ll end up at first. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll play some more third this year… I don’t know if the future really has me playing third, just because of my shoulder and the way things have gone the last couple years. I don’t know if I’m the best option over there anymore. I’ve always said I’ll play until someone is better than me, or I’m not the best option at that position.”

If Zimmerman were to become the full-time left fielder, that would force Harper back to centerfield, where he played 92 games as a rookie but just nine last year and three this year; he's 11 runs above average there according to Defensive Runs Saved. Such a configuration looked particularly appealing when incumbent centerfielder Denard Span was struggling, but after hitting just .233/.295/.314 in April, Span has heated up, batting .297/.333/.443 since.

Though he did stroke an RBI double on Wednesday night, Zimmerman hasn't exactly lit the world on fire since returning to the lineup on June 3. He's batting just .194/.275/.306 in nine games, but that slump has been masked by the team's success. After kicking off an eight-game homestand by losing a pair to the Marlins on May 26 and 28, the Nationals dropped to 25-27 — their first time below .500 this year. They finished the homestand by taking two of three from the Rangers and swept the Phillies in three, then took two of three from the Padres in Petco and the first three of a four-game series from the Giants at AT&T. They tied the Braves for first place on Sunday, and after three days of deadlock, they now have the upper hand; Atlanta, meanwhile, has lost nine of 15.

While lauding Zimmerman's quick adaptation to the outfield, after Wednesday's win, manager Matt Williams made clear his plan once Harper returns. Via Kilgore:

“We got a pretty good outfielder hopefully coming back really soon,” Williams said. “The perfect world is, Zim would go back to third, where he’s played a long time and won a Gold Glove. And when Harp’s ready, Harp will play left. That’s the plan… I think Danny has played really well at second base for us. If Harp comes back and he’s playing the outfield, then we have to put Zim back at third.”

Even with Zimmerman back in the lineup, the Nationals are far from full strength. Not only is Harper out, but catcher Wilson Ramos went on the DL on Wednesday due to a right hamstring strain, his second trip to the sidelines this year and his fourth since missing nearly all of the 2012 season; the 26-year-old backstop has played in just 127 games over the past three seasons. His absence leaves the catching duties in the hands of Jose Lobaton and Sandy Leon, neither of whom is Ramos' equal with the bat. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez has been on the DL for shoulder inflammation since May 18, and will make at least one more rehab start before returning. Rookie Blake Treinen has pitched well in his absence, though the Nationals have lost both of his starts; rain and off-days led him to be skipped twice.

For the moment, Zimmerman will get more time in left field, giving Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo food for thought as to the lineup's best configuration, not only for the remainder of this year but also next, since the team holds an option on Span ($9 million) and has a mutual option with first baseman Adam LaRoche ($15 million); it's possible that one could be dealt later this summer if a more pressing need presents itself. All of the other potentially moving parts are under club control through at least 2017, when right fielder Jayson Werth's contract expires; Zimmerman is signed through 2019, Harper under club control through 2018.

A climb to the top of the division past the fast-starting Braves amid so many injuries is a different script than the one the Nationals followed last year. Atlanta holds a 5-1 series edge, but the two teams haven't met since that April sweep. They'll square off for a four-game set in Washington next week, with the Nationals showing off their new look.

This story has been updated to correct an error regarding LaRoche's option; it is a mutual option, not a club option.

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