Then, one Tuesday night in October, on a baseball field in Houston, having nudged his team further from a clubhouse clean-out and closer to a parade, it all rushed back.
“You're kind of almost floating around the bases,” Zimmerman said.
The second-inning home run, on a 1-0 fastball right down the pipe, punctured the near-mythical dominance of Houston Astros starter Gerrit Cole, and it served as a launchpad for the Nationals’ 5-4 win in Game 1. Their five earned runs against Cole handed the American League Cy Young Award candidate his first loss in five months. Zimmerman’s home run was not only crucial for the team, searching for a spark against Cole after starter Max Scherzer allowed two runs in the first inning, but for himself, as well.
This season has been one of the most difficult of his career. The former ironman missed large portions of the last six seasons with injuries, but this year’s ailment, plantar fasciitis in his right foot, proved especially frustrating. Every time he thought he was healing, the injury worsened. The prescribed rehab was waiting. He played in 52 games, the lowest full-season total of his career, and felt the fan base’s frustrations mount.
The foot finally healed in mid-August, and Zimmerman felt himself finding a rhythm by the season’s end. Manager Dave Martinez still played Zimmerman only against left-handed starters early in the playoffs because his career-long struggles against right-handed pitchers have worsened over the years. Then, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, Zimmerman crushed a dramatic, game-breaking home run off Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Pedro Baez. Martinez has stuck with him since and, on Tuesday, became emotional when Zimmerman homered off the best right-handed pitcher he’s faced all year.
“I’ll be honest with you, my eyes got a little watery for him,” Martinez said. “He waited a long time to be in this position.”
The subtext of this season, of this run, is that each postseason series win has prolonged his time with the team by at least another day. Beyond this World Series, the 35-year-old has an uncertain future with the only organization he’s ever known. He’s in the final year of his six-year, $100 million contract extension, and he knows the team won’t pick up his $18 million option for 2020. Uncertainty lurks beneath every moment — the Baez home run, this one in the World Series — because the question remains: Is this Zimmerman’s final great act as a National?
His teammates don’t think about it. Shortstop Trea Turner saw the veteran voice of the clubhouse “having a blast.” Right fielder Adam Eaton praised his leadership. Scherzer pointed out that, in a time when baseball’s average age dips every season, Zimmerman embodies qualities missed by data analytics. He hustles out every groundball, provides a fundamental example to others, stays steady no matter what.
“We’re all just ecstatic to see him go out there and have this kind of postseason,” said Scherzer, adding, “All the old guys are stepping up.”
Age and tenure give Zimmerman unparalleled perspective into what this run means not only for his teammates but his city. The Virginia Beach native has seen the fan base react to this run unlike anything before it. The lack of professional baseball in Washington for so long forfeited the generations on which the league now thrives. But Zimmerman has seen the fan base “grow up,” and he compared it to the neighborhood around the ballpark.
“It's been fun to grow with the fans, with the community, with the city, to watch them become baseball fans,” Zimmerman said.
After it was all over Tuesday night, after the clubhouse mostly emptied, Zimmerman walked in wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts. He’d wrapped his news conference and now found himself sorting through a wooden locker. He tossed his phone in the cubby and then paused. This situation would have seemed impossible two weeks ago, but here he was. Ryan Zimmerman was helping lead the Nationals in the World Series. His locker was still full.