By the time Ryan Zimmerman's 30-game hitting streak was over, no doubt remained that the young third baseman had become the face of the Washington Nationals franchise.
05/27/2009 2:59 PM ET
Ryan Zimmerman is Nats' leader
Third baseman cemented his role with long streak
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
These are difficult times for the Nationals, who are very much a work in progress. But at least Zimmerman has solved the third base part of the puzzle. In a frustrating beginning to what will likely be a long, difficult season, his hitting streak was a beam of light.
"It was fun, very cool," he said. "I've never been involved with something that exciting. I learned from it. You find out that if you do the same stuff -- your routine, your preparation for the game -- there's a benefit to be gained."
And Zimmerman found out something else.
"I learned how much better 56 is than 30," he said.
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941 remains the record, and no one has seriously threatened the mark. Zimmerman made it just past halfway there.
"Fifty-six, that's a lot of games," he said. "That's pretty unbelievable. To get a hit in every game, you can't waste at-bats; you can't swing at bad pitches."
Zimmerman's streak ended on May 13 at San Francisco with an 0-for-3 day that included two walks, one of them intentional. He had no complaints.
"I got good pitches to hit," he said. "That's the game. Some days you hit line drives and come up empty. Some days, you hit a pop fly, and it falls in for a double."
More important to him was that, on the day the hitting streak ended, the Nationals won, beating the Giants, 6-3. Wins have been difficult to come by for Washington this season, but Zimmerman is convinced that his team is moving in the right direction.
"We're a young team," he said. "Our position players are young, and our pitching staff is young. You learn from the things you did wrong when you lose. You take the opportunity to learn from it and embrace it. We'll win sooner rather than later."
And when they do, Zimmerman will be the third baseman. Management made sure of that in the midst of the hitting streak, signing him to a contract extension that seemed to fuel his offense. After the extension, he went on a 51-for-137 tear, a .372 batting average that included 10 doubles, nine home runs, 25 RBIs and 18 walks in 34 games.
Even after the hitting streak ended, Zimmerman found other ways to contribute every day, reaching base safely in a single-season franchise record 43 consecutive games. He refused to get caught up in it, though.
"I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff," he said. "I come in every day and do my work. That's my focus."
Three players -- Kevin Youkilis (44), Albert Pujols (42) and Chipper Jones (41) -- made it past 40 games last season. The Washington-Montreal club record is 46 set by Rusty Staub in 1969-70.
When the streak of reaching base ended, Zimmerman still had substantial All-Star-worthy statistics with a .346 batting average, 11 home runs and 35 runs batted in.
Zimmerman's career has been a microcosm of the team's step-by-step progress. He was a first-round choice of the Nationals in 2005, the fourth player chosen in the Draft, and was in the Majors before that season was out, batting .397 in a 20-game sample.
It was enough to convince the Nationals, and he's been a solid contributor ever since.
"The first two years, you learn what kind of player you are," Zimmerman said. "After that, you build on it."
He missed just five games those first two seasons but sat out 48 games last year because of a shoulder injury sustained on a head-first slide into second base. Healthy now, he has started every game for the Nationals this season and reached base safely in most of them.
Hal Bock is a freelancer based in New York.