WASHINGTON -- Twice on Monday, Ryan Zimmerman plopped himself down at the podium, ready to field questions ahead of what many around the District have surmised will be the final go-around for the first Draft pick in Nationals history.
During the first iteration, before Game 4 of the National League Division Series, Zimmerman balked at the questions about his future, appeasing as best he could but reaffirming that the only way to operate around a playoff series it to believe, no matter what the odds might say, that there will always be a tomorrow.
The second time Zimmerman took questions was after Washington’s 6-1 win at Nationals Park, a victory that forced a decisive Game 5 to be played Wednesday night in Los Angeles. Zimmerman’s three-run homer in the fifth inning not only built a more comfortable lead but earned him yet more lore among the Nationals’ fan base, moving him to No. 2 on the franchise list with four postseason home runs, behind only Bryce Harper’s mark of five.
“This could be your last game before a home crowd,” a reporter remarked hours later. “Did you have any extra oomph at your at-bats?”
Zimmerman, 35, is in the final year of his contract, and the Nationals hold a club option of $18 million for 2020, with a $2 million buyout. The first baseman showed a slight grimace as the inquiry came in. As he politely began to answer, one of his teammates cut him off.
“I really don't think these are his last games,” winning pitcher Max Scherzer forcefully interjected. “Only you think it's his last games.”
It was a reaffirmation of what Zimmerman offered earlier that day. Despite the cheers that seem to be wishing him farewell each time he was mentioned on the PA system at Nationals Park the past couple weeks -- and despite the trips down memory lane with fans watching Mr. National’s countless walk-offs, his older jaw-dropping plays at third base and moments of service to the community -- Zimmerman believes he has more left to give.
“I feel like a lot of people think I'm not going to play more games,” he said Monday afternoon, “but I feel good. I feel like I can still be very productive beyond this year.”
Whether that is with Washington or elsewhere past this season remains to be seen, but one swing of the bat on Monday seemed to back that claim.
The high fastball off Pedro Báez that Zimmerman smacked 414 feet, just onto the batter’s eye, had every reason not to go out. Rain struck Nationals Park in two bursts throughout the night. The wind that had been stagnant all afternoon began blowing in from left field. Balls that had almost identical launch statistics died in the air and became outs or, at the very least, remained in the yard on Monday night.
But not Zimmerman’s. Call it luck, call it destiny, call it baseball’s funny way of going about things -- call it whatever you want. It may have been one of the most important home runs in his 15-year tenure with the Nationals.
“I was blowing,” said Nationals manager Dave Martinez, pantomiming into the microphone how he would have tried to power Zimmerman’s ball out with his breath.
“That's why sports are special,” Zimmerman said. “You can't replicate it.”
The Nationals cheered since it was Zimmerman, but especially so because of the home run’s role in the series. Even in spite of Scherzer’s dominance, Washington’s shaky bullpen -- and equally apprehensive fan base -- now had some breathing room heading into the second half of Monday’s contest.
It’s clear the affinity Washington still has for their Zim. The walkup and result of the at-bat following his homer earned him especially loud applause, even if it was just a single. Each time his name was announced in the starting lineup at Nationals Park -- just 22 times during an injury-riddled 2019 -- no other National could hold a candle to his level of applause.
“Man, hopefully, he'll be around a little longer."
Depending on how Wednesday plays out, that could be the case as soon as just the coming week.
“The last home game, they tried to give me like a standing ovation,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I feel good. I think that we got plenty to go.”