Before he entered the clubhouse and booze cascaded down his head, Ryan Zimmerman and his wife, Heather, came together for one last picture on the field at Nationals Park on Tuesday night. Zimmerman angled his body and pointed to the backdrop he wanted, the giant center field scoreboard that read in big block letters: National League Champions.

“Surreal,” Zimmerman said, shaking his head before he exited the field, because it was still sinking in that he was headed to his first World Series after the Nationals had swept the Cardinals with a 7-4 win in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

“A lot of people play for as long as I do and don’t get a chance to do this,” he added. “So I consider myself pretty lucky to still be able to do this. It definitely makes it a little sweeter.”

What else was there to say? Zimmerman simply didn’t have time Tuesday night to trace his path back to 2005, when he became the team’s first draft pick after it moved to Washington, when he was called up right away and quickly became a franchise cornerstone. His totals since then are staggering. He leads the franchise in games (1,689), hits (1,784), home runs (270), RBI (1,015), runs (936), doubles (401) and walks (630).

But there were other crucial checkpoints along the way to this first World Series berth. Zimmerman endured four brutal playoff exits in the division series. He outlasted the future face of the franchise, Bryce Harper, in Washington. And he adapted late in his career, even though he was once the same caliber of third baseman that teammate Anthony Rendon is today. He missed most of this season with plantar fasciitis in his right foot and called it probably the most difficult year of his career. Before the end of the season, there were questions of what kind of send-off Zimmerman might get, given his uncertain future with the team.

That can wait. The postseason is still unfolding in the best way imaginable after the 35-year-old reestablished himself throughout October — first with a clutch hit to help the Nationals rally to beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game, then with consistency at the plate that is reminiscent of his prime. His teammates could see shades of the old Zimmerman throughout the past two weeks.

“For what he’s done and grinded through this whole year, we’ve been there right with him. For him to have a postseason like he’s having now, it’s just such a special moment for him and for us,” pitcher Max Scherzer said.

Tuesday was made all the more special because Zimmerman, with lingering health issues all season and an uncertain future looming, has played such a critical role during this run. Originally expected to ease back into the lineup and serve as a pinch hitter early in the postseason after a stint on the injured list, he reemerged as Washington’s everyday first baseman, a distinction he hadn’t carried all season.

“He’s the classiest big leaguer I’ve ever been around. He’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. The guy’s been through some trials and tribulations. We all forget about the first six or seven years when he played 160 games every year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said “I saw needles in his shoulder. I saw him playing when he probably shouldn’t have been playing early in his career. It takes its toll. But that’s the kind of man he is and player he is. And you can see: When he’s a healthy player, he’s a pretty damn good one, still.”

Not only did Zimmerman prove again that he was the best defensive option at the position, he rekindled his bat to the point that the Nationals had no option but to play him there throughout this run. Zimmerman usually wouldn’t start against right-handed pitching, but his hitting has been so consistent since his pivotal three-run homer against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series that he has made four consecutive starts against righties.

He entered Tuesday with a .308 batting average in the postseason, with three doubles and a home run, and he scored during the Nationals’ seven-run first inning. Zimmerman had an animated slide at the plate to make it 5-0, and he shook his fists as he rose.

He could almost taste his first chance at a World Series. After 15 years, he could finally taste it as the champagne flowed early Wednesday morning.

“It paid off,” he said.

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