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There was a time, not long ago, when Ryan Zimmerman represented one of the only true threats in the Washington lineup. He trailed only Adam Dunn in intentional passes during the latter’s two-year stint in The District, and still led the 2012 Nationals in that category. Considering that, the thought of a player – any player – being intentionally walked to get to Zimmerman would seem almost farcical.

And yet, that’s exactly the situation in which the Nationals found themselves Thursday night, with Chicago White Sox Manager Robin Ventura electing not to pitch to Bryce Harper and face Zimmerman instead with two on and two outs in the fourth inning of a game Washington led 4-3 at the time.

Ryan Zimmerman is surrounded by a lineup chalked full of talent.

Ryan Zimmerman is surrounded by a lineup chock full of talent.

Unsurprisingly, the plan backfired. Zimmerman kept his head down and extended through a pitch low and away from White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod, sending it darting through a steady wind and over the head of right fielder Alex Rios for a two-run double to break the game open. What may be much more surprising is that the pitch driven by Zimmerman was Axelrod’s 103rd of the night, after the starter had recorded just 11 outs.

The difference in this year’s Nationals lineup from those of years past is both its balance and its incredible patience, the tendency for every batter to grind out each plate appearance, making the opposing starter sweat for each and every out. Consider the first inning Thursday night, in which Washington scored just once, but forced Axelrod to throw 40 pitches to just six total batters, an average of nearly seven pitches per plate appearance.

With Zimmerman moving to the fourth spot in the order this season, opposing starters have to contend with a prototypical leadoff man in Denard Span, the active Major League leader in pitches per plate appearance Jayson Werth, and the dynamic, unpredictable Bryce Harper before ever even getting to The Face of the Franchise, Mr. Walk-off himself. Thursday night, that meant 20 pitches – six to Span, 10 to Werth and four to Harper.

The outfield trio of Span, Harper and Werth wreaks havoc on opposing pitchers.

The outfield trio of Span, Harper and Werth wreaks havoc on opposing pitchers.

“That’s the point of the left-right-left-right  in the lineup,” said Zimmerman, referring to the symmetrical balance achieved in the offseason by the addition of Denard Span. “There’s really not anyone in our lineup you’d rather pitch to. There really aren’t any breaks anywhere in our lineup.”

Given the many ways Washington’s batting order is capable of hurting opponents, it’s only fitting that no White Sox starter survived the sixth inning in the series, the three hurlers combining for just 14.1 total innings. That’s what happens when a group of players learns that they don’t have to try to be the hero – if they are pitched around, the guy behind them will pick up the slack.

“That’s their decision,” said skipper Davey Johnson with a wry smile after the game, about the White Sox choice to walk Harper to get to Zimmerman. “I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.”

The decision to walk anyone in front of Zimmerman is not one that had crossed opposing managers’ minds in quite a while. In fact, only one batter had been intentionally handed first base in front of Zimmerman since 2009, when on September 3, 2011, Roger Bernadina was intentionally walked by Mets reliever Bobby Parnell to load the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, as New York clung to a 7-6 lead. In that instance, Zimmerman delivered – what else – a two-run hit to right field, as the Nats walked off to an 8-7 victory.

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