Updated at 12:06 a.m.
ATLANTA — A Nationals club already reeling from several injuries to key players now will be without another lineup stalwart for an extended period of time after Ryan Zimmerman fractured his right thumb during Saturday night's loss to the Braves.
Zimmerman, who hurt himself while getting picked off second base in the top of the fifth inning, will miss 4-to-6 weeks, according to manager Matt Williams, who now faces the challenge of playing the next month without his starting third baseman and middle-of-the-order slugger.
"It’s a big one, but we don’t have a choice," Williams said. "Gotta go play and compete and win games. We’ll have to do that starting tomorrow.”
The injury occurred as Zimmerman dove headfirst to second base, trying to avoid getting picked off by Atlanta starter Alex Wood. After he was tagged out by shortstop Andrelton Simmons, he rose to his knees, looked down at his right thumb and started shaking it, remaining on the ground for several seconds. He eventually walked slowly off the field as many in the Turner Field crowd of 36,621 booed and went straight down the dugout tunnel with head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz.
"The ball took Andrelton away a little bit, and he kind of lunged after the ball and fell on Zim," Williams said. "But I think from what I’ve seen — and again, I’ll have to look at it — I think he did it on the bag. Unfortunate, but we’ve got to step forward from here."
Zimmerman has already been dealing with a chronically injured right shoulder, which forced him to miss a game earlier this week and completely alter his throwing motion. Now he'll miss at least a month with the latest in a string of early season injuries that has befallen the veteran third baseman.
This will mark the fourth consecutive April in which Zimmerman has spent time on the disabled list. He tore an abdominal muscle in 2011 and required surgery. He missed two weeks with his first bout of shoulder inflammation in 2012, the transaction that brought Bryce Harper to the major leagues for the first time. And he strained a hamstring last April, forcing another DL stint.
"We were just talking the other day about having a good April and how important it was to get through April not only healthy but hot," teammate Jayson Werth said. "Put up good numbers and win a bunch of games in April, and kind of set up your season. It was probably 2-3 days ago we were talking about that.
"You feel bad for him. It's such a freak injury on a play like that. But we'll be alright. We've got some good players. We'll manage. Anytime you lose the guy in the middle of your lineup, it hurts. But we've got guys who can play here, and I think we're bringing up a kid that can play. We'll have to figure out a way."
The Nationals didn't announce any corresponding roster move after Saturday's game, but infielder Zach Walters was pulled from Class AAA Syracuse's game minutes after Zimmerman was injured and is likely headed to Atlanta to join the club in time for Sunday's series finale.
Williams suggested he will proceed now with Anthony Rendon taking over Zimmerman's spot at third base, and Danny Espinosa coming off the bench to play second base.
"It's not our first choice, certainly, but the fact that they can play multiple positions is good in times like this," Williams said. "Certainly never want to miss somebody like Zim for that amount of time, but it is what it is. There's nothing we can do about it now except play."
Zimmerman becomes the latest lineup regular lost to injury. The Nationals saw catcher Wilson Ramos fracture a bone in his left hand on Opening Day, and they placed center fielder Denard Span on the 7-day concussion DL before Saturday's game. Werth also was out of the lineup Saturday with a tight groin muscle but came off the bench to pinch-hit and is expected to play Sunday.