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Zimmerman adjusts to new role

Zimmerman adjusts to life in baseball's spotlight

VIERA, Fla. -- Ryan Zimmerman tries to ignore the fact that he is famous, but his family and friends won't let him forget it.

They get a kick when people compare Zimmerman to Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson when it comes to his defense at third base, or when someone in the front office proclaims him to be the face of the Washington Nationals.

"That's the hardest part, because those are the people that get more excited than I do," Zimmerman said. "Every time you see them, that's all they want to talk about. They eat that stuff up a lot more than I do."

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There is a reason to be excited about Zimmerman these days. He is one of the top young players under the age of 25. Last year was his first full season with the Nationals, and he was arguably the team's best player. He led the team in RBIs (110) and doubles (47), and frequently made sparkling plays at third base. It was good enough to finish second behind Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Zimmerman was told recently that people are expecting him to repeat last year's performance. One would think that's a lot of pressure to put on a 22-year-old third baseman, but Zimmerman's goal is to be even better than last year.

"I want to be better every year, just like everyone does," Zimmerman said. "From what I learned from last year, I feel a lot more comfortable. I know the game and how it goes up here. You get in certain situations the first time, you really don't know what to expect. Now that I've have been in them -- and I've been in every situation possible last year -- there's nothing new to come at me."

Zimmerman may be comfortable playing in the Major Leagues, but he is never satisfied with his abilities. There is no doubt that Zimmerman is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. But earlier in Spring Training, Zimmerman was working with Barry Larkin, the special advisor to the general manager, twice a week on his footwork at Space Coast Stadium. Zimmerman was practicing because he was not happy that he made 15 errors in 2006.

In practice, Zimmerman was seen on his knees fielding ground balls, working on his throws at third and shortstop, and also turning the double play at second base.

"There were four or five errors I could have avoided if I used my feet a little more," Zimmerman said. "We were concentrating on not ever stopping my feet. Just getting my feet planted. It's also going to save my arm a lot more if I get all of my momentum toward first base."

Zimmerman also was not pleased that he struck out 120 times. During the exhibition season, he is purposely trying to be patient at the plate. Not once has he swung at the first pitch. Zimmerman is even making an effort to hit the ball to right field more than he has in the past.

"I'm trying to work the count," he said. "One of things that I was trying to do this spring is to see more pitches. If I get two strikes, I want to be a little bit more comfortable. You have to learn how to hit with two strikes, because they are going to give you the best pitch they have. You have to learn to lay off the pitch that they want you to swing at."

The new approach at the plate is working. Entering Wednesday's action, Zimmerman is 17-for-39 (.436) with two home runs, eight RBIs and just four strikeouts.

"He looks like he is in midseason form," manager Manny Acta said.

Hitting the baseball and playing defense will not be the only thing that Zimmerman will do for the Nationals this season. He asked Acta to be one of the team leaders, and Acta agreed.

Zimmerman is hoping the Nationals can be a closer team in 2007, and, so far, the players are getting along. He hopes that togetherness on and off the field will convince big-name free agents to sign with the club.

"I think a lot of things that went on last year, a lot of us didn't like what was happening. We got along, it was just that there were some groups that didn't talk to other people," he said. "When we do get the new stadium and bring in big-name free-agent guys in here, we can make them feel comfortable and let them know how we do things around here, which will tie them right into the team. The big part of us getting better and winning more is how we get along.

"You can tell that this spring is totally different than last spring. Everyone is a lot closer. It's a lot easier to play."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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