Ryan Zimmerman, long the face of the Nationals franchise, finally gets a postseason

September 21, 2012

Ryan Zimmerman took the red Nationals t-shirt and pulled it over his jersey on the field at Nationals Park following Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. He plopped a gray and white cap on his dome. A foreign word was spread across the chest: “Postseason.” The even-keeled Zimmerman sported a broad grin across his face.

For the first time since 1933, a Washington baseball team was headed to playoffs. Zimmerman, 27, endured 573 losses over seven previous seasons with the Nationals before he could finally enjoy this night. He believed the team’s owners and signed a six-year, $100-million extension in the off-season because he felt a moment like this would eventually arrive.

The face of the Nationals’ franchise, a fan favorite who was at his best when the team was at its worst, the franchise’s first-ever first-round pick who wants to end his career here, the longest-tenured National who made the Washington area his home — had finally gotten a chance to play in the postseason. Thursday’s victory might not have been more satisfying to anyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse than him.

“It’s one of those feelings that you’ve never had before,” Zimmerman said, standing at his locker and still sporting that hat and t-shirt. “We accomplished something that none of us here on this team have ever done. I think other guys have done it on other teams with other organizations, but for us to do it here and to come as far as we have, it’s a sense of satisfaction.”

It was fitting that the game’s first run was scored when Zimmerman smashed a double to left-center to score rookie Bryce Harper in the third inning. He also made several trademark defensive plays at third base, aiding starter Ross Detwiler, who threw six strong innings to stifle the Dodgers.  

“It’s got to mean so much more to him than it does anybody else,” Detwiler said. “He’s been here since the beginning. He’s been on last-place teams for years. Now, we have a chance to win the East.”

Added Zimmerman: “I’ve met fans and seen people here for years when we lose 100 games a year. And now, for them to have a team, for this city to have a baseball team to root for is pretty special.”


Rob Carr/Getty Images

Zimmerman played through pain in his right shoulder, even when it sapped the life out of his potent swing for the first three months of the season, to be a part of this. He was still an elite defender, but his shoulder was making him a liability at the plate.

Then came the miraculous cortisone shot, the third of the season, on June 24 in Baltimore that eased the discomfort and turned Zimmerman’s season around. He re-gained his form and more, helping pace the Nationals with one of the hottest stretches of hitting in baseball. Zimmerman was already a vital part of the team’s success but now he could be proud of what he had overcome, buoying strong pitching with powerful hitting.

“It was one of those things where I didn’t want to play but I knew I was banged up but I was good enough to play,” he said last week in New York. “… That was about as tough a six-week stretch as I’ve ever had in my career. To be able to look up there now and know I’ve been able to battle back from that, and more importantly, can actually help the team win now, I’m pretty proud of it.”

Zimmerman has been a guiding force for the Nationals this season, a mild-mannered leader, a potent hitter in the heart of the team’s lineup and an elite defender. Now, he could toast with teammates, a glass of champagne in hand, in the clubhouse.

“I’m sure it’s a big relief for him, all those years of struggle are now paying off,” Adam LaRoche said.

In Zimmerman’s mind, the long wait for this was worth it because of the team’s makeup: a young squad, sprinkled with veterans, poised to repeat this celebration again for seasons to come. That reality makes all the struggles — the 100-loss seasons, the sparse crowds, the scant attention while watching other teams play in October — worthwhile.

“We’re set up to be this good for a long time,” Zimmerman said. “And I think that makes it even sweeter when we went through those years where we didn’t really have much of a chance. And now we’re set up to have a good chance for the next five or ten years –  kinda makes it worth it.”

 

FROM TODAY’S POST

The Nationals punch their ticket for October with a 4-1 win over the Dodgers, Adam Kilgore writes.

The Nationals celebrate but are hungry for more, writes Thomas Boswell.

 

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Nats are first D.C. team to go to playoffs since 1933

Umpire apologized to Johnson

Wang to start Sunday vs. Brewers

Clippard available despite pitching twice Wednesday

 Nats bullpen stumbles recently, overall strong

Sorting out Wednesday’s doubleheader

 

THE PLAYOFF PICTURE

Nats’ magic number to win the division: 8

Current NL matchups

Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*

Reds vs. Giants

*The Braves lead the Cardinals by six games. The Cardinals lead the Brewers by 2 1/2 games, the Dodgers by three games and the Phillies by four games.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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Adam Kilgore · September 21, 2012