by Jesse Dougherty

Some 400 feet from where the ball landed, in the seconds after it found the grass beyond the center field wall and the crowd exploded, was this image of Ryan Zimmerman: his feet off the ground, his hands balled into fists, his face twisted into a scream that comes once you've been in the middle of so much playoff heartbreak on the same field over which you're now hovering.

A split-second later, and the moment broke. Zimmerman had to round the bases, he had touch them all, he had just hit a three-run homer in the fifth inning of a do-or-die Game 4, to help the Washington Nationals sidestep elimination Monday night. They beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-1, because Max Scherzer was dominant and the offense finally clicked. Zimmerman’s blast off Pedro Báez capped Washington’s backbreaking rally. The 35-year-old, his future here uncertain beyond this run, still has a little bit left.

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"There's been a lot of people that think these are my last games," Zimmerman said, his face cracking into a smile, when asked if this could be his final appearance at Nationals Park.

"I really don't think these are his last games," Scherzer chimed in, staring straight at the reporter who mentioned it, defending who he later called the face of the franchise. "Only you think it's his last games."

“The last game they tried to give me a standing ovation,” Zimmerman finished with a laugh. “I mean, I feel good. I think that we got plenty to go.”

The question from the beginning, the question on everyone's mind, was how far the Nationals could push Scherzer with their season on the line. They'd used him for 14 pitches out of the bullpen in a Game 2 win. Then they went with another creative plan Sunday — inserting starter Patrick Corbin for the sixth inning — and it blew up in their face. Corbin was shelled. He threw 35 pitches, his absolute limit, rendering him unavailable for this elimination game. That meant Scherzer, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle were the only fresh options that Manager Dave Martinez could trust. Martinez needed everything Scherzer had.

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That's what he provided, throwing 109 pitches in seven innings, limiting the Dodgers to one run before the bullpen took over. Scherzer set Doolittle and Hudson up to finish it off. And he'd given Zimmerman a chance to bury the Dodgers with one swing.

"I've been in this game a long time," Martinez said. "And big moments, big players seem to come through."

Some five hours earlier, in the quiet of the Nationals Park interview room, under the attention of too-bright lights, Zimmerman was asked to consider what may happen next. He has been with the Nationals since 2005, since their first season in Washington, since he was a third baseman out of Virginia Beach with limitless potential. But now his days in Washington could be numbered. He has a team option for 2020, for $18 million, and he knows he’s no longer worth that. He has expressed interest in negotiating a cheaper deal. So have the Nationals. Yet it’s still a business. Money is complicated. Zimmerman’s aware that even the best things have to end.

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He just isn’t thinking about that now. The Nationals are in the thick of the postseason race. They are still breathing in part because of him. He put off reflection for at least another day.

“A lot of guys would love to have this situation but don’t really have the opportunity that I’ve had,” Zimmerman said Monday afternoon, allowing a bit of introspection, only teasing at his feelings before he was off for the start of batting practice. “So I think I feel more lucky than anything.”

That feeling was then returned in the fifth, after the teams traded runs in the early innings, and after Anthony Rendon nudged the Nationals ahead by singling in Trea Turner. Rendon finished the game with three RBI. Howie Kendrick soon ripped a two-out single, extending the rally, and that’s when Zimmerman dug into the box. He was in this same stadium for season-ending losses in 2012, 2016 and 2017. Those all came in the NLDS. Those all continued the narrative that follows this team like a shadow. The Nationals have never been past the first round of the playoffs, so Zimmerman hasn’t, either, and now his chances are thinning.

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He was Báez’s first batter after the right-hander replaced lefty Julio Urías. Báez started Zimmerman with a slow slider that he watched for strike one. Then Báez challenged him with a high fastball, putting it well above the strike zone, and Zimmerman swung as if the location had been whispered into his ear.

“That’s why sports are special; you can’t replicate it,” Zimmerman said of how he felt once bat met ball and he started up the first base line. “That’s why you work so hard during the season, offseason, for times like that. And you fail a lot in those times, as well, so I think when you do succeed and the team succeeds, you take some time to cherish it a little bit.”

So Zimmerman cast his eyes into the pitch-black sky, looking above the tangle of hotels and parking garages beyond Nationals Park, trying to find the speck of white as it soared to a soft landing. It was hard to know in that moment, in the middle of delirium, who the lucky ones really were. Was it the veteran first baseman, his feet giving up on him, his home run trot not looking so different from his very best sprint? Or was it the 36,847 around him, their voices hoarse, their spirits now lifted by a player they’ve been watching for the past 14 years?

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Maybe the feeling was mutual. And maybe, just maybe, this October could be different after all.

More Nationals and MLB playoffs:

Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 6, Dodgers 1):

Sean Doolittle got the first out and the Dodgers pinch-hit right-handed hitter Chris Taylor. The Nationals went to the bullpen for right-hander Daniel Hudson. Hudson allowed a base runner, as he has in each of his three career playoff relief appearances, but he got a lazy flyball to right and it was over. The Nationals were going to another Game 5.

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Eighth inning (Nationals 6, Dodgers 1):

Sean Doolittle slammed the door in the eighth. There was one scary moment for the Nationals reliever — when leadoff hitter Max Muncy blasted a flyball to deep center field and Michael A. Taylor ran all the way to the wall. It looked like a no-doubter home run until Taylor pulled up, stepped in and secured the out. He laughed with right fielder Adam Eaton and even Doolittle himself couldn’t help but grin. The Nationals were facing elimination and as loose as possible. By the end of the inning, they had three outs to go.

The Nationals went down in order in the eighth. Sean Doolittle sprinted back to the mound to start the ninth inning. The Nationals sensed Game 5 on deck.

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Seventh inning (Nationals 6, Dodgers 1):

Max Scherzer loaded the bases with one out. He walked two hitters as he neared 100 pitches and struggled with his command. He almost issued a third, to pinch-hitter Chris Taylor, but battled deep into the count. On the seventh pitch, he fanned Taylor with an 86-mph slider and Manager Dave Martinez had a decision to make.

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The left-handed hitter, Joc Pederson, was coming to plate. He crushes right-handed pitchers. But Martinez stuck with his ace.

Pederson crushed the first pitch, a fastball, down the right-field line just foul. Pederson ripped off his helmet and ran down the right-field line himself, as if he wanted to inspect where the ball landed. But he got back in the box and, on the next pitch, meekly grounded out instead. Scherzer unleashed and scream and flexed down into himself, almost like a crunch. He’d escaped and given everything he had to the ballclub. He’d done what Martinez had preached before the game and given them seven innings.

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The Nationals went down quietly in the seventh, a Ryan Zimmerman flare single into right erased quickly by an inning-ending double play. But they’re not focused on that. They need to secure six outs to force Game 5 in Los Angeles. Max Scherzer departed, and Sean Doolittle came on.

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Sixth inning (Nationals 6, Dodgers 1):

Manager Dave Martinez said before the game his team might need Max Scherzer to throw 140 pitches. The sentiment was right — the Nationals needed him to go deep and avoid using the bullpen — but the mechanics might not be. Scherzer retired the side in order and, his first-inning solo homer aside, navigated through the sixth inning unscathed. He’s at 82 pitches and not looking to stop now.

Anthony Rendon skied a flyball to deep center field and, as Cody Bellinger raced back, everything looked for a moment how it had when Ryan Zimmerman homered the inning before. But Rendon hadn’t gotten as much of Ross Stripling’s knuckle-curve and Bellinger made a leaping catch while crashing into the wall. Yet he didn’t need to. Trea Turner sprinted home to give the Nationals the insurance runs which they’d needed in Game 3 but had eluded them. The Nationals have nine outs to go.

Fifth inning (Nationals 5, Dodgers 1):

Max Scherzer was doing his part to go as deep into this game as he can. He retired the side in order in the fifth — strikeout, strikeout, strikeout — and sat at 70 pitches staring down the sixth. He’s about to navigate the meat of the Dodgers left-heavy order for the third time.

Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon singled off Dodgers reliever Julio Urías, and the second base-knock gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead. They got their hits in a similar way, both waiting and waiting until then seemingly got what they wanted. They turned belt-high, inside, 96-mph fastballs and shot them toward left field. Howie Kendrick did too and the Dodgers came to get Urias because they didn’t want a left-hander to face Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hits lefties well.

It didn’t matter. The Dodgers went to right-hander Pedro Baez and Zimmerman crushed an 0-1 fastball over the wall in center. In the dugout, the maker of all the mischief, Gerardo Parra, leaped into Zimmerman’s arms like a child.

Fourth inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 1):

Cody Bellinger, the once-cold superstar of the Dodgers lineup, led off the fourth with a single to right. He stole second on what could have been a close play had Trea Turner snagged the throw from catcher Kurt Suzuki, but Max Scherzer ensured it wouldn’t matter. He struck out two of the next three hitters and got the other one, Matt Beaty, to fly to left. The Nationals held the tie for another inning.

Kenta Maeda shut down the Nationals in the fourth. He faced the bottom of the lineup, all right-handers, which suited him. He’s allowed just a slash of .158/.219/.316 to right-handed hitters this season. The one solace for the Nationals was Michael A. Taylor beating out a slow roller to third base which brought up starter Max Scherzer and, for the fifth, flipped the lineup.

Third inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 1):

The top of the lineup the Nationals were in a hurry to meet again did no damage against Max Scherzer in the third. The veteran right-hander got two groundouts and a flyball from Justin Turner which looked scary off the bat but ended up harmless in the middle of left field.

Anthony Rendon smacked a fastball deep to left field. It looked as though it’d carry into the Nationals bullpen for a grand slam, but on the warning track, Dodgers left fielder Matt Beaty glided in to make the basket catch. Michael A. Taylor sprinted home to tie the game and, one batter later, after Rich Hill walked Juan Soto (the third walk he’d issued to a left-hander so far), the Dodgers starter was out. Manager Dave Roberts went to Kenta Maeda.

The Nationals managed no more. Maeda got Howie Kendrick, who was hitless in six at-bats against him, to ground out softly to third.

Second inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0):

Max Scherzer allowed a leadoff double but, as he often does in that scenario, escaped the jam without allowing a run. The curious move, though, came with two outs. The Nationals intentionally walked Will Smith, the Dodgers’ weak-hitting catcher, to get to pitcher Rich Hill. The Nationals might have been trying to force the Dodgers hand and get them to use a pinch-hitter early with runners in scoring position, but it mostly just brought the advanced the Dodgers one batter further toward the heart of their lineup. Hill eventually struck out, but not before taxing Scherzer for a six-pitch at-bat.

The Nationals have put the leadoff runner on base nine times this postseason and they’ve only scored runs in those innings four times. The second was perfect example of it. Howie Kendrick started the frame with a sharp single to center but Ryan Zimmerman’s strikeout and Kurt Suzuki’s second grounded-into-a-double-play of the series meant the Nationals still had nothing on the board.

First inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0):

The good for the Nationals: Max Scherzer was more under control with his fastball in the first against the Dodgers. He was hitting 98 and 99 mph early against the Brewers but now he’s back down to 95-96. The Nationals will need him to stay there to get as deep as they hope (seven or eight innings).

The bad: Scherzer’s first-inning struggles persisted as he allowed a moonshot home run to Justin Turner with two down.

The Nationals offense is facing its easiest test of the season in Rich Hill. The 39-year-old left-hander has thrown 5 2/3 innings since June because of a left forearm strain. But the top of the lineup couldn’t spark anything in the first as Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto all popped or flew out.

Pregame:

6:28 p.m.: Alexander Ovechkin returned to Nationals Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton, a big hockey fan who often wears Capitals caps in the clubhouse, caught it. The left-hander threw it over the plate for what might’ve been a strike.