WASHINGTON — Their lockers are both on the far side of the Nationals’ clubhouse. Jayson Werth has that beard and is often outlandish in his postgame interviews, especially with MASN’s Dan Kolko. Ryan Zimmerman is clean-shaven and answers in a much softer, low-key tone. They are two veterans who, despite dressing for games side-by-side, couldn’t appear to be any more different if they tried.
But both have been a part of the Nats’ nucleus since the first playoff run five years ago, and both 30-somethings know their October opportunities are numbered, with this perhaps their last run together.
Baseball may be a timeless sport, but there’s definitely a clock ticking on Werth’s tenure as a Washington National. Believe it or not, the outfielder didn’t have a beard when he signed with the Nats in 2011 as the first big free agent fish caught by the club after years of 100-loss campaigns, misspelled uniforms, and sausage sandwich giveaways gone wrong. The seven-year, $126-million deal turned heads across the majors … but Werth’s presence helped turn the Nats from pretender to contender.
“I was just really in the right place at the right time and had the foresight to buy into the whole thing,” the 38-year-old said. “I was lucky enough this all worked out. It’s been a fun ride — it’s been a great ride. It’s been of the best teams in baseball since I’ve signed here.”
Werth hasn’t hit 30 homers nor driven in 90 runs, but the bearded one delivered a walk-off home run in Game 4 of the NLDS against St. Louis — perhaps the greatest moment in the young franchise’s history. Manager Dusty Baker’s move of Werth to second in the batting order in May of 2016 helped jump-start a struggling lineup.
But this year has not been kind to the veteran, as he has played just 70 games (Werth’s lowest since 2003 when he was with Toronto) after suffering a foot injury in June. In 22 games since his return in late August, the outfielder has hit just .155 and may not be the best option for the club in the postseason (Adam Lind is hitting .341 since the end of August). Werth’s contract runs out after this season and with outfield options skewing young in the form of Brian Goodwin and restless in the shape of Adam Eaton, the deal that began with a bang may wind up ending with a whimper.
While Werth started his career elsewhere and might not be in D.C. next year, Zimmerman is one of just six active players with 12-plus years of major league service who have spent their entire career with one team. Zimmerman is the classic “cradle to grave” MLB player that every city has — or tries to have. They don’t necessarily have to be Hall of Famers (for every Craig Biggio or Barry Larkin there’s a Ron Oester or Bobby Higginson), and with free agency those players are few and far between. Zimmerman is signed with the Nats through 2019 (there is a team option for 2020) and will likely end his career wearing the curly W. He’s also enjoying his best season since the Nats became relevant.
There was once a time when Zimmerman was the only reason to watch the Nationals — with apologies to Nook Logan and Willy Mo Pena’s adventures in the outfield and on the base paths. From 2007 to 2010, the then-youthful third baseman was averaging 24 homers and 83 RBI for teams that averaged 97 losses. Zim won the 2009 Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards while toiling for a 103-loss club. If anyone deserved to enjoy the recent run of NL East titles, it’s the guy who wears No. 11.
But wouldn’t you know that just as the Nats began winning, Ryan Zimmerman’s time in the sun would be derailed by a series of injuries. Shoulder issues during the 2012 campaign led to his lowest batting average in four years. A fractured thumb and an injured hamstring in 2014 led to a career-low 61 games played, and the veteran was reduced to pinch-hitting in the NLDS against San Francisco. Last year, rib and wrist issues contributed to a career-low .218 batting average. The cruel baseball world had the Nats dropping three one-run games to the Dodgers and the best player in their history batting sixth.
That’s what makes 2017 all the more special. Zimmerman hit .303 (first time over .300 since 2010) with 36 home runs (first year of 30+ since 2009) and 108 RBI (most in his career since his rookie year). The 33 year-old has been the rock in the middle of a batting order that has missed Bryce Harper for almost a third of the season. The guy who missed an average of 70 games over the last three years wound up playing 144 (second-most on the team behind Anthony Rendon) for the NL East winners. And he sports a lifetime .357 batting average in the postseason.
“What we’ve learned in the playoffs is that nobody can predict what happens,” Zimmerman said. “You show up and play good baseball. And try to take advantage of every opportunity that you get, because there’s not many of them in the playoffs. You gotta catch a couple of breaks too.”
Zimmerman and Werth batted fifth and sixth in the final regular season series against Pittsburgh. Will we be seeing the clubhouse neighbors next to each other on the lineup card as well against the Chicago Cubs? Enjoy October … because there’s no guarantee Zimmerman will be this good for a team this good again. And it’s definitely a possibility this may be Werth’s final month on the South Capitol Street stage.