The Nats’ ‘Face of the Franchise’ enjoys October at last

October 21, 2019

Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman sits in the stands as he participates in a television interview after a baseball workout, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, in Washington, in advance of the team's appearance in the World Series. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Autumn in Washington can come at you fast. Didn’t we just have a week of 90-degree weather? You blink and all of a sudden you’re looking for the lining in your coats you removed in April and breaking out the scarf and gloves. Baseball’s playoffs are just as abrupt, as teams gearing up for a long postseason run all of a sudden are packing up their gear after a Game 5 loss.

Ryan Zimmerman is deep into the autumn of his career, one that spans the entirety of the Washington Nationals’ stay in D.C. The team’s initial first round pick in 2005 was a September call-up during the tail-end of the Nats’ inaugural season at RFK Stadium. He shined the following season as an everyday player, finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year race (to Hanley Ramirez, for those curious). Zimmerman topped that off by hitting a walk-off home run in the first regular season game at Nationals Park the next March.

The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of talent around Zimmerman at the time. It was an era of bad base running and dismal defense, misspelled uniforms and exploding sausage sandwiches in the skies (true story). But the team was building for something special and Ryan Zimmerman was their cornerstone.

“He hasn’t changed since I saw him at the University of Virginia. He’s a pro’s pro — and one of the great players that I’ve ever scouted,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “A guy that’s really given his all to the Washington Nationals. Physically, mentally and in the community he’s been terrific. He’s the face of the franchise for a reason.”

The “face of the franchise” carries with it a ton of weight on the field and in the clubhouse. Production at the plate and making great plays in the field are tangible skills one can easily see; being the leader Zimmerman has been for the bulk of his career is not. But his teammates know and appreciate what Zim has done and continues to do on a daily basis.

“He’s just an ultimate professional. A guy that goes out and puts his all into it — even banged up whatever it might be,” Adam Eaton said. “Speaks highly of everybody. Somebody that you would follow into battle type of guy. There’s a reason he’s been the face of the organization for as long as he has been.”

That means being the go-to quote in the clubhouse when it’s not apparent who’s had a big game; it also means being the guy who the young players look up to in the clubhouse as they try to navigate their way through the early stages of their careers. Zimmerman has been that kind of teammate, which reliever Sean Doolittle knows from playing alongside him in college.

“When I was a freshman at Virginia and he was a junior, he was one of the top prospects in all of college baseball,” Doolittle said. “And I got to watch the way he handled that pressure in the microscope and go about his business every day and was an awesome mentor to me.”

Being “the guy” for so long means building friendships with teammates that may spend half a season or half a decade in D.C. And Zimmerman knows that while the 2019 Nationals are the team that finally won a playoff series, this World Series appearance also belongs to the Jayson Werths and Adam Laroches, former neighbors on his side of the clubhouse.

“It’s definitely a culmination of a lot of guys that have been here,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve had some chances and haven’t come through, but they say you learn from your failures. All of those guys that were on those teams are part of this tonight even though they’re not here.”

Baseball can be cruel when it chooses to be. Just when the Nationals were beginning to be competitive, Zimmerman started dealing with a laundry list of injuries. Shoulder issues eventually moved the Gold Glove-winner across the infield to first base. Seasons have been hijacked due to an abdominal strain and an oblique injury. This year, Zimmerman played just 52 games (his fewest since his September call-up in 2005) while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He finally returned on September first with the rest of the 40-man roster expansion.

After hitting .283 over 53 at bats in the season’s final month, Zimmerman was no guarantee to be a fixture in the lineup. Matt Adams offered more power (20 homers) while Howie Kendrick was batting a career-high .344. Kendrick likely had to play first because second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera was coming off a 21-RBI September. The Kendrick-Cabrera combination at first and second base started the Wild Card Game.

“I played with him in 2014 here,” Cabrera said. “He was one of the best teammates, he’s a professional outside (of) and on the field. You want to do everything that is possible to do the best for the team and him.”

Autumn weather can defy explanation though; it’s not as much of a straight line between the seasons as it is an eventual progression from summer to winter. And this October, Zimmerman has turned back the hands of the clock, hitting .290 with a homer and five RBI over nine games. His biggest hit was that broken-bat (more of a splintered or shattered bat) single in the Wild Card Game that set up Juan Soto’s go-ahead single in the eighth inning.

“What he’s doing now does not surprise me one bit,” Manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing for him was his health. If you get a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, the product on the field speaks for itself.”

Somehow from the ashes of a 19-31 start to the season, this team surged and then scraped its way into the playoffs. Somehow from 3-0 deficits in the Wild Card Game and Game 5 of the NLDS, the Nationals found a way to be the team still standing when the final out was secured (a fly-out to centerfield in both cases, just like the NLCS).

And somehow Ryan Zimmerman gets to enjoy being a key part of one historic run.

“Now to share a clubhouse with him again it’s been really special,” Doolittle said. “I’m really happy for him as somebody who’s been here from the beginning of this version of Washington baseball.”

How long will Zimmerman’s extended autumn last? The 35-year-old is in the final year of the contract extension he signed way back in February 2012. There’s a club option for 2020 worth $18 million (his salary the last two years), or the team can buy out the deal for $2 million. To say it’s extremely likely the Nationals will take the buyout route would be a major understatement.

But to also say that the veteran wants to come back and play his final days in Washington, even at a reduced rate and playing time, is also a major understatement. This has become home for the Virginia Beach native and his family, and the only major league home he’s known.

“Playing in the big leagues for this long you consider yourself lucky,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to do it with one team and one organization, being involved in the community and have friends that I’ve met that I’ll be friends with far longer than I’ll play baseball. It’s a pretty cool situation.”

He has at least four more games before those decisions need to be made but the face of the franchise hopes to be safe at home here in Washington for 2020.

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