On Sunday at Nationals Park, the future didn’t matter to the franchise’s foundation. The present was enough. Zimmerman delivered one of the brightest moments of his season — a 437-foot moonshot home run to left field in the sixth inning — to push the Nationals to a 9-3 victory that secured a series sweep of the Miami Marlins and gave Washington its ninth win in 10 games.
In Zimmerman’s first trip through the team’s post-homer dugout dance line, he pantomimed using a walker.
“I’m old,” the 34-year-old said, grinning. “Dancing’s not really my thing, but [I] got to do it.”
His teammates, who jokingly called him a September call-up, appreciated the effort.
“Obviously his body has taken a hit, but he’s working at it,” Anthony Rendon said. “Each and every day, he’s been [in the minor leagues rehabbing], so for him to grind back to it and his first day hit a ball like that, it was awesome. We loved it when he danced.”
The distance between the starring role Zimmerman once held and the player he is now is apparent. His blast was a small piece of the team’s win, and it came an inning after Rendon broke his franchise record for single-season RBI with 111. Rendon is a National League MVP candidate, a heightened version of the sweet-swinging third baseman that Zimmerman was in the early days of this franchise.
The record was a small nod to the torch of franchise cornerstone that has passed from Zimmerman to Bryce Harper to Rendon. Juan Soto — the 20-year-old phenom who could be next in line if Rendon departs in free agency — added two doubles and a home run.
Zimmerman downplayed his return, saying he felt good, calling it “fun” to be back on the field and promising he would do whatever it took to win. But his teammates respected what it took to get here. Manager Dave Martinez praised his diligent work in rehab and said the home run “really electrified everybody.”
“Zim has a lot left to give when he’s healthy,” Martinez said. “We get a guy back now in a pivotal point where, if he can get hot in [the middle of the lineup], he can carry us.”
This cloudy day in Nationals Park felt slightly cooler, somewhat charged. It was the first day of September, and the playoff push that had seemed far off suddenly felt near. The NL wild-card game, which the Nationals are angling toward as the home team, was exactly one month away.
The significance of the day did not overwhelm Martinez. There were more players in his clubhouse — seven players rejoined the team, including Sean Doolittle, Jeremy Hellickson and Zimmerman — yet his mind-set stayed the same. Martinez preached the desire to go 1-0 and reiterated that everyone understood “we need to win the game at hand — every day.”
Then again, nothing has derailed Martinez from his message this season. Perhaps that’s a major reason the Nationals, once the second-worst team in the NL at 19-31, are now in position to contend. The Chicago Cubs’ loss Sunday means the Nationals hold a 4½ -game cushion for the top wild-card spot.
“I don’t know; probably should have fired Davey,” Zimmerman deadpanned when asked to explain the turnaround. Then he added, seriously, “That’s why you play 162.”
One of the other major reasons — the rotation — showed up Sunday. Patrick Corbin mixed fastballs and sliders to mow down the Marlins’ lineup his first time through. He ended the fourth inning by striking out Garrett Cooper for the second time, his seventh of the game and 200th of the season. The Nationals have three pitchers (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin) with at least 200 strikeouts for the first time in franchise history and are the first NL team to have such a trio since the Houston Astros in 1969.
Everything changed in the fifth when the Marlins jumped on Corbin’s slider and fastball to seize a 3-2 lead. In the left-hander’s previous outing, Tuesday against the Baltimore Orioles, he allowed two runs in the first inning and then watched as his teammates flailed at the plate. This time, he needn’t have worried.
Rendon’s two-run shot in the bottom of the fifth gave the Nationals the lead back, and they wouldn’t relinquish it. Zimmerman had his homer in the sixth, a two-run shot. Catcher Yan Gomes homered in that inning, too, and the bullpen and defense ensured the lead held. Zimmerman did his part defensively, ranging for throws and looking spry as he chased foul balls down the right field line. He went so hard that Martinez spoke to him about being cautious.
“I have to tell him, ‘You’re not 22, 23,’ ” Martinez said. “ ‘Just push back a little bit and do smart things and not try to play 100 mph every pitch, every single at-bat, because we need you on the field.’ ”
Zimmerman wants to be here, too. This group reminds him of 2012. He understands as well as anyone in the organization that this team’s success up to now means nothing, but still: Something feels different. Zimmerman explained the mood in the dugout when the Nationals trail — no adversity feels too great — and, in that way, described his own season.
“You just have that feeling that you’re going to come back,” he said. “Just got to keep it going.”