Veteran Zim proving he has plenty left in tank
WASHINGTON -- Ryan Zimmerman has been no stranger to the injured list in recent years, but his up-and-down, injury-ridden 2019 has been the most frustrating. Mainly because, well, he felt good. His timing at the plate felt good, so he knew he could contribute with his bat. Most of his body felt great, especially for someone in his 15th season in the big leagues who turned 35 in September.
Yet, Zimmerman played in just 52 games during a regular season ruined by plantar fasciitis in his right foot. It marked the fewest games played of any season of his career, except 2005, the year he was drafted in June and made his big league debut as a September callup.
“Being injured so much, [I worked] my butt off to stay in shape and almost be better in shape than I was before because that’s all I could really do,” Zimmerman said. “And just hoping for this outcome.”
During the most difficult days of rehab, or the 13 games he had to play in the Minors in August, Zimmerman would have found it difficult to dream of a better outcome than this. On the eve of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, the Nationals are returning home for the first NLCS games in Nationals Park history with a 2-0 lead in their series against the Cardinals.
And Zimmerman, the original face of the franchise, the first Draft pick in the organization's history, is still one of its key contributors.
He’s reclaimed his job as the starting first baseman, posting an .855 OPS in 23 at-bats this postseason -- including one of the most memorable postseason homers of this October ride, a three-run blast in Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers to help keep the Nationals' season alive.
“We knew Z could do that,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “I think all you guys think he’s old and he’s done, but I think he’s going to write a different script than what you guys are writing.”
At the start of the month, however, Zimmerman had lost his status as an everyday player.
Asdrúbal Cabrera played more down the stretch, starting at second base, pushing Howie Kendrick to first base and leaving Zimmerman as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. That was how the Nationals lined up for the NL Wild Card Game with their season on the line. His return from the IL in September was really the first time in Zimmerman’s career that he was not an everyday player anymore. Yet, he never complained and he accepted his new role.
And now manager Dave Martinez is riding Zimmerman's hot bat, starting him in four consecutive games at first base.
“People don't see his emotions, I see his emotions a lot in the clubhouse,” Martinez said. “He's fired up, he's excited, he wants to play, he's ready to play. I asked him to do a different role when he came back, and he accepted it. And he just wants to be a part of it. He’s playing really well right now and hitting the ball really well.”
An underlying part of this Nationals postseason run is that, perhaps, this could be the last for a few key members of their core. Anthony Rendon, the understated MVP candidate, will be a free agent next month. Stephen Strasburg, the team's best starting pitcher in the playoffs, could join him if he chooses to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract.
And then there’s Zimmerman, with an $18 million team option the Nationals seem almost certain to decline in favor of a $2 million buyout. Zimmerman knew that coming into the season, but he and the organization have remained confident they will be able to work out a new deal to keep Mr. National in a Nationals uniform. Crazier things have happened, in baseball and with this organization especially, but the relationship between Zimmerman and the Nationals is special.
He remains so confident that he has swatted away questions about his last game at Nationals Park. It was after that three-run homer in Game 4 of the NLDS, with the Nats headed to Los Angeles with their season on the line, when Zimmerman was asked during a press conference with Max Scherzer about the possibility of this being his final run in D.C.
“There’s been a lot of people that think these are my last games,” Zimmerman began.
“I really don’t think these are his last games,” Scherzer interrupted. “All of you think it’s his last games.”
“The last home game they tried to give me, like, a standing ovation,” Zimmerman continued. “I mean, I feel good. I think that we have plenty to go.”