Max Scherzer’s eyes still stare out from behind the right field concourse. The remaining, active players from the 2019 title run make up a short list: Zimmerman, Juan Soto, Patrick Corbin, Wander Suero, Austin Voth and Andrew Stevenson (and the last three are a stretch). Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and Gerardo Parra are with the team but on the injured list. Victor Robles is in the minors. Even Manager Dave Martinez was not in the dugout for this game, sidelined by a follow-up procedure from his Sept. 2 ankle surgery.
The Nationals (60-85) are left selling their future, hoping Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray — then Luis García and Carter Kieboom — will form a core built on Soto’s 22-year-old shoulders. Lane Thomas and Riley Adams have a chance to play themselves into the mix. Some others do, too. But Zimmerman’s homer was both a nod to the past and a little victory in the present. And in the past six weeks, with the season hollowed by the trade deadline, those have been counted on one hand.
“I’m just privileged to watch Zim come to the ballpark every day,” bench coach Tim Bogar said. “I consider him one of the better players I’ve ever been around.”
Does Zimmerman turning 37 this month, at the tail end of a one-year, $1 million contract, make Bogar savor the chances to watch him play?
“You just never know when his last one is going to be, obviously,” Bogar answered. “But, you know, I’d love to see him come back another year. You never know with this new [collective bargaining agreement] what’s going to happen with the DH, too. So that might just open up another year, two, three, four. Who knows? I don’t want to say it’s the last home run I’ve seen him hit. I don’t want to say it’s the last at-bat I’ve seen him take.”
Has Zimmerman considered whether this, the final stretch of a lost year, is the beginning of the end?
“That’s a decision I’ll make in the offseason. I’ll sit down with my family and kind of see where we’re at,” Zimmerman said, recycling old lines. “This year has gone pretty well. Depending on how I feel after the season, depending on how I feel Dec. 1, honestly, if I want to start working out and getting ready to prepare to be productive for another major league season. … That’s the hardest part.”
In his 16th season, 16 years after he became the Nationals’ first draft pick, Zimmerman has spelled Josh Bell against lefties, been an effective pinch hitter and mashed 14 homers in 246 plate appearances. He started Tuesday because the Nationals put Bell, a switch hitter, in left, stacking righties against the left-handed Luzardo. The dash of creativity was enough to jump-start an offense that, on Monday, was shut out for the first time since June 11.
That happened when Luzardo tried a 3-1 sinker near the top of the zone. Zimmerman had worked ahead by taking a close curveball, a curve for a strike, then two errant pitches. Then he took that sinker, one running straight to his barrel, to the second deck in right field. A woman snagged the ball in the third row. Zimmerman jogged the bases, a light crowd standing, before moving through a line of high-fives. It was, after all, just another home run in another late-season game. The celebration came and went.
“Some feel better than others, but every homer is cool,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter if it goes in the upper deck or one row out. Obviously, I hit that one well, but like I told Bogie, ‘Good first at-bat, and the other ones were kind of trash.’ … Any chance I get a chance to play, I try to do something to contribute and help the team win.”
From there, Thomas notched a single and a double, scoring twice. Ruiz, who has struggled since arriving from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the trade for Scherzer and Trea Turner, reached on three infield singles. Soto walked and poked three singles, raising his on-base-percentage to .457. Erick Fedde yielded one run on a homer by Lewin Díaz, struck out eight and walked none in five inefficient innings. In relief, Alberto Baldonado logged a scoreless sixth, Andres Machado was on the wrong end of Díaz’s second homer, then Voth and Suero shut the door.
As he noted, Zimmerman’s night did cool after the second inning. He flew out on Luzardo’s full-count curve in the fourth. He bounced into a double play with the bases loaded to end the fifth. He bounced into another to finish the seventh. He then struck out to end a four-run eighth.
But he had that homer, as did the fans who showed up Tuesday. The importance of that could be gleaned through numbers on a page and a feeling around the ballpark. And it was fair, of course, to wonder how many of these moments are left.