But when Zimmerman’s three-run blast landed well onto the center field batter’s-eye grass, it was the Dodgers who were knocked to the deck, trailing 5-1 and on the way to a 6-1 loss that forced a decisive Game 5 in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Asked after his heroics about the chance that this might have been the last game he ever plays in Nationals Park, Zimmerman began to repeat his pregame quote on the same subject: “I plan on playing more games. I feel like a lot of people think I’m not going to play more games [ever again]. But I feel good. I feel like . . . ”
Max Scherzer, sitting on the postgame interview podium, cut Zim off, snapping sarcastically, “I really don’t think these are his last games. Only you think these are his last games.”
Talk about a contract push!
Let the record show that, after a fist pump at first base, Zimmerman ran the bases with hard determination still locked on his face — perhaps showing how desperately he felt the need to deliver after striking out in his first two at-bats. The hang time for his 414-foot blast was a preposterous 6.1 seconds, long enough for Trea Turner to round the bases twice. Okay, long enough for a fast man to get from home to second base, or Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. to get out of the batter’s box.
As if to underline the D.C. mythology of Zimmerman’s blow, Dodgers power hitter Max Muncy crushed what looked like a long home run to center in the eighth inning, a shot that sent Michael A. Taylor to the wall, looking up, before he had to dash in a few feet to make the catch.
“I was just hoping it didn’t hit that wall of wind,” GM Mike Rizzo said. “But when Zim hits ’em, they stay hit.”
Manager Dave Martinez started laughing and imitated his own “blowing” with his mouth in the dugout, trying to help the ball.
“He’s a beast,” fellow Nats first baseman Matt Adams explained.
As usual, Zimmerman tried to be modest — always the same approach, don’t try to do too much: “Got on top of a high fastball — finally.” But then he said, “This is what we live for. . . . No, I can’t explain how those moments feel. You can’t replicate it anywhere else. But afterwards, you take some time to cherish it.”
This game, setting up a do-or-die meeting with the possibility of the wild-card winners beating the 106-win, back-to-back pennant-winning Dodgers, had other hair-raising moments. In the seventh inning, an exhausted Scherzer faced left-handed slugger Joc Pederson as Martinez stayed nailed to the top dugout step, even though the Nats’ lone lefty, Sean Doolittle, was warm.
Pederson lashed a bases-clearing, three-run double down the right field line — at least that’s what they may tell you in L.A. Right field umpire Ted Barrett called it foul. Replay showed that it was foul by perhaps a half an inch. If Barrett had pointed “fair,” would there have been enough evidence to reverse the call? We’ll never know.
We do know that Scherzer’s next pitch, his 109th, produced a groundout, ending the ace’s night at seven innings of three-hit, one-run, seven-strikeout ball. And with that hairbreadth escape, the last big Dodgers push died.
“You never know what might’ve happened,” said Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, “but, shoot, Max threw the heck out of the ball.”
Scherzer reduced that split-second and fraction of an inch to the fact that he caught “a break with Pederson.”
The implications of this Stay in the Fight victory, which had most of the crowd of 36,847 standing for much more than an hour, from the moment Zimmerman’s homer landed, could have lasting ramifications. Why? Because the Dodgers, the class of the National League, to the despair of their fan base are suddenly in deep Dodger Blue doo-doo. The pressure meter in Chavez Ravine has jumped higher than the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Dodgers have a 6-foot-5, 235-pound problem, one with a 0.64 career ERA in the postseason. The new Hollywood horror flick — “Nightmare on Vin Scully Avenue” — is scheduled to open Wednesday, and the lead will be played by Stephen Strasburg, once described by teammate Jayson Werth as “just a big, hairy, scary furry animal.”
The Dodgers, for all their money, all their tradition and, at times, all their haughty vanity, have found more ways than their oldest fan has fingers and toes to avoid winning a World Series since 1988.
Now, from the 101 to the Slauson Cutoff, from the hours-long traffic jams on Interstate 5 to the smoggy vastness of the city’s banal suburban sprawl, one name will be on every baseball tongue: Strasburg, who fanned 10 Dodgers in six innings of Game 2 on just two days’ rest after winning the wild-card game with three innings of relief.
What’s Mr. Hairy Scary going to do on full rest?
“We got another game to play,” said Strasburg, almost smiling, and adding that after his relief stint six days ago, he’s finally back on his regular routine and feels “real good” for a start on full rest.
Asked why he has done so well in the playoffs, Strasburg said, “You train for this, dream of this, from the time you’re a kid. You want the chance to see how your stuff stacks up.”
The Dodgers counter with their own large and menacing right-hander, Walker Buehler, one of the few pitchers with stuff roughly comparable to Strasburg’s. He held the Nats to one hit in six scoreless innings in a Game 1 victory.
This matchup is the right meeting to decide which team advances to the NL Championship Series. The Dodgers were utterly dominant all season, but the Nats were almost as imposing over their final 112 games, when they went 74-38 and outscored their foes by a staggering 184 runs, just a few less than the Dodgers’ margin in the same span.
If this series now has an extra twist, it’s that the Nats may have two relievers, Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, who are not overmatched by the Dodgers’ lineup. With an off-day Tuesday, both should be primed for Game 5.
For 137 days, the Nationals have shared huge grins and secret handshakes, group hugs and shimmy shakes, victories and glee. What once looked like a lost season — and maybe even a losing year by a team without a compass — suddenly turned into a month-after-month dugout dance party.
After 93 regular season wins, a wild-card game comeback victory and now a pair of comebacks to even this NLDS, the music still hasn’t stopped for these Nats. The fight they’ve stayed in for so long will now go the distance with the Dodgers. The Nats have been in this Game 5 spot three previous times in the past seven seasons — but never as the underdog, using every trick of pitching staff management to neutralize the Dodgers’ obvious advantages.
As the Nats took the field for the ninth, the stadium PA system blasted the Beastie Boys: “You’ve got to fight / For your right / To party!”
The fight goes on for a few more days. The party could follow.