WASHINGTON—Nostalgia has no place in Ryan Zimmerman’s psyche at the moment, not with his biological career clock ticking and a decade’s worth of playoff frustration staring him in the face.
He surely knows his days in D.C. are numbered, though. He’s 35, in the final guaranteed season of a lucrative contract. And given his age and injury history, there’s little chance he’ll be back with the Nationals in 2020 in a prominent role (or without a significant pay cut from his $18 million club option).
But the team’s first-ever draft pick, the last remaining National from the team’s inaugural season in 2005, obviously isn’t ready to let go. (And he’s giving Mike Rizzo pause to reconsider his roster makeup for next season.)
Zimmerman has produced more memorable moments in D.C. than Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer combined, helping the Nationals transition from a pathetic team playing in decrepit RFK Stadium to a perennial contender in a modern ballpark. And if Monday turns out to be his last hurrah, it was a fitting one.
Zimmerman’s three-run, fifth-inning home run sent the Nationals’ travel agents scurrying to make arrangements for a flight to Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon. All that’s at stake is the biggest game in franchise history Wednesday night—a chance to finally win a National League Division Series. And Zimmerman had as big a part in getting them there as the charter pilot.
“It was a huge moment, and he came through in a big way,” manager Dave Martinez said.
Until last week, Rizzo’s plan for Zimmerman was likely pretty clear: Set up an appreciation day sometime around the holidays to celebrate his decade and a half as the real face of the franchise. (Sorry, Bryce.) Show clips of his 11 career walk-off home runs (a figure surpassed by only seven men in major league history), along with his voluminous community work. Wish him well in retirement—or with another club, if one is interested.
It made sense. Shoulder issues forced Zimmerman to give up third base, his natural position, in 2015 and move across the diamond to first. Age and a slew of other injuries (most recently plantar fasciitis) have made him a part-time player in recent years.
He’s arguably now Washington’s No. 3 option at first base, Matt Adams usually starts against right-handers and Howie Kendrick (who had a far better offensive season at the same age as Zimmerman) generally plays a capable first—his two errors in Game 1 notwithstanding.
After Zimmerman struck out in each of his first two at-bats Monday night, Martinez understandably could have pulled Zimmerman. But he trusted his gut (and heart) rather than a stat sheet.
“Typically, I don’t pinch hit for those guys because, like I said, he’s been in this game a long time and I’ve seen guys like Zim come through in big moments,” Martinez said. “And he did tonight.”
Zimmerman seems to embody his team’s “Stay In The Fight” motto better than anyone. Last week’s NL wild card game could have been his final appearance in a Nationals’ uniform; instead, his broken-bat pinch single ignited a rally that carried Washington past Milwaukee and into its fifth NLDS in eight years.
And Monday night, his game-breaking homer trickled down a grassy slope beyond center field, coming to rest against the fence. It stayed there, out of reach of souvenir hunters—maybe a final reminder of his contributions.
Monday still could be Zimmerman’s swan song in D.C., if the Nats don’t win Wednesday’s Game 5 in L.A. If so, he’ll have earned every ovation—and perhaps a chance to come back, if he so chooses, in a limited role next season. He and the Nationals could still be good for each other.
“I feel like a lot of people think I’m not going to play more games,” Zimmerman said before Game 5. “But I feel good, and I feel like I can be very productive beyond this year.
“[The Nationals] have stuck with me through some injuries and some bad times, and obviously I stuck with them through some bad times as well. But I think the situation I’ve had here has been a special one.. … So I think I feel lucky more than anything.”
There’s been some good fortune on both sides. And neither Zimmerman nor the Nationals seem ready for it to end.