WASHINGTON—Max Scherzer settled into his chair in the interview room Monday night like a retiree onto his sofa--with some effort. All that was lacking was a remote control and a beer.
Beside him was Ryan Zimmerman, and the two 35-year-olds were the men most responsible for extending the Washington Nationals’ season for at least two more days. Three innings after working a rare relief inning on the other coast, Scherzer had emptied his tank by throwing 109 pitches in seven innings of a 6–1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, buoyed by Zimmerman’s three-run home run.
When someone brought up the subject of age, Scherzer smiled for perhaps the first time all night.
“Yeah, we could joke about that,” he said. “We’re a bunch of viejos, we’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”
“Yeah, nice way to say veterans,” Zimmerman said. Retorted Scherzer: “I feel young and I’m older than you.”
By two months, to be accurate. But they’re hardly outliers on baseball’s oldest team, one that’s trying to use guile, experience and heating pads to keep up with a younger opponent.
Despite a lineup that includes a pair of outfielders (21-year-old Juan Soto and 22-year-old Victor Robles) whose combined age at the start of the season didn’t add up to that of 42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney, the Nationals have baseball’s oldest average age per player at 30.1 years, according to Statista.
They’re not ready for AARP cards, but on Monday night, Washington started four 35-year-olds (Scherzer, Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki), along with 31-year-old outfielder Adam Eaton. Brian Dozier (32) pinch hit, and relievers Sean Doolitte (33) and Daniel Hudson (32) finished up for Scherzer.
All this in a sport that’s increasingly prioritizing youth and controllable contracts. Just ask the scores of veteran free agents who have gone unsigned over the past two winters.
Under general manager Mike Rizzo, the Nationals have chosen to go in the other direction, keeping the band together for what may be their last chance to win with this veteran group. Yes, they have Soto, Robles, Trea Turner (26) and Anthony Rendon (29) in the heart of their batting order. But 17 of the 25 players on their Division Series roster are 30 or older, compared to 12 for the Dodgers.
“I think that, you know, we have a good mix,” Zimmerman said. “We do have an old team, whatever you want to call it, but I think we also feed off the young guys that we have and they feed off us, asking this guy about pitching, asking me about other things.”
The battle of the ages will be emphasized again in Wednesday’s decisive Game 5 in L.A. The Nationals will send 31-year-old Stephen Strasburg to the mound against 25-year-old Dodger ace-in-waiting Walker Buehler, whom manager Dave Roberts chose over future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw to start Games 1 and 5.
The Dodgers have the youngest average age (28.2) of any of this year’s playoff teams and feature recent NL rookies of the year Corey Seager (25) and Cody Bellinger (24). They also started 22-year-old Gavin Lux at second base Monday night, along with Matt Beaty (26) in left field and Will Smith (24) behind the plate. (It should be noted that L.A. lost Monday’s game 6–1 after romping 10–4 on Sunday night with Russell Martin driving in four runs and fellow 36-year-old David Freese going 3 for 3 after replacing Lux.)
“The overriding decision is what gives you the best chance to win tonight,” Roberts said. “I think that fortunately we have had young players a part of our roster in past years that we felt confident could handle this stage. And Matt Beaty, Will Smith, Gavin Lux, are no different. So, and we just expect them to do what they can do.”
It’s also worth noting that nine of the 10 playoff teams this season ranked in the top 12 in oldest rosters, per Statista. Nationals manager Dave Martinez declined to pinch-hit for Zimmerman in the sixth inning Monday night, even though he had struck out in his first two at-bats.
“He’s a veteran guy,” Martinez said. “For me typically I don’t pinch hit for those guys because, like I said, I’ve been in this game a long time and I’ve seen guys like Zim come through in big moments and he did that tonight.”
Yes, there’s no substitute for experience—although the Nationals’ postseason experiences have been heartbreaking. If you play long enough, though, fortunes can change.
“We just believe that we got some mojo and that we can win,” Scherzer said. “We just believe in this clubhouse, what we have here, what we built here.”