Nationals hope Zim's timely blast a harbinger

Three-run homer could help struggling first baseman swing fortune in his favor

Nationals hope Zim's timely blast a harbinger

MIAMI -- Ryan Zimmerman thought he had homered in the second inning Wednesday night, driving the ball a Statcast™-projected 406 feet from home plate with 106-mph exit velocity, but it was caught at the wall in center field by Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich. It was a microcosm of a nightmare year for Zimmerman, who rarely shows emotion on the field but yelled in frustration nearing second base as the ball was caught. And he could let out a sigh of relief when he made up for it in the fourth.

The Nationals are hoping what happened in the fourth inning -- when he hammered a breaking ball for a three-run homer to left field -- is a preview of what he can provide down the stretch. The homer, Zimmerman's first since Sept. 6, helped lead Washington to an 8-3 victory Wednesday night in Miami and provided a bit of relief for a player in need of it.

"I've been feeling good the last week or so," Zimmerman said. "I feel like I've been having good at-bats and haven't been getting too much to show for it. Trending in the right way, and hopefully just got to continue working these last 10, 12 games, hopefully get hot at the right time."

The results have not backed up his feeling at the plate during his previous 12 games, during which he hit .175/.195/.200 with one extra-base hit and 10 strikeouts. Even as Zimmerman has struggled through what is almost certain to be the worst personal season of his career, manager Dusty Baker has stuck with him as the team's everyday first baseman.

"We need Zim," Baker said last week. "I think guys are pulling for him harder than anyone on the team, because they have seen what Zim can do. I've seen it from the other side. I have not seen it from here.

"I know a lot of people are asking why I'm still playing him, but this guy is a carrier. There are carriers, and there are helpers. A helper can help you for so long, but a carrier can carry you [for a long time]."

Perhaps Zimmerman, who will turn 32 next week, still has it in him to get hot at the right time.

A look at the numbers suggests that he has been extremely unlucky this season.

He has posted an average exit velocity of 93.5 mph, consistently among the leaderboards and currently 10th in the Majors for hitters with at least 190 batted balls. His hard-hit rate on the season (34.4 percent) is nearly identical to his career hard-hit rate (34.9 percent). His batting average on balls in play is .245, well below the league average of .300.

Still, even with his homer Wednesday, Zimmerman is hitting .216/.270/.372 for an OPS of .642, while posting a negative WAR (-1.0) for the first time in his career.

"It's been frustrating for me individually, but I think we are pretty close to winning another division, and I think that's the most important thing," Zimmerman said about his club, which reduced its magic number to two.

"I think as a team we've kind of picked each other up -- some guys have had great years, and some guys haven't had the years they wanted to have. But at the end of the day, if we can win a division and go into the playoffs, that's the ultimate goal no matter how we get there."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.