WASHINGTON – Ryan Zimmerman had been here so many times before.
A decisive home playoff game. The outs bleeding away one nick at a time. Another crushing, season-ending loss pending. The organist at National Park had another sad dirge ready to play.
Zimmerman, batting against one of the best relievers in baseball, one out in the eighth inning and his team down 3-1 to the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League wild-card game, is one of only two players left on the Nationals who have lost four playoff series since 2012 – three of them in a Game 5 at home. He knows the brutal pain that comes with these nights.
Not this time. If October baseball luck toyed with Washington for the better part of a decade, fell into the arms of the Dodgers and Cardinals and Cubs and Giants, this time it came to the Nats’ rescue. A shattered bat. A bloop. A base hit falling into center field. Zimmerman’s wounded duck changed everything.
Anthony Rendon walked. And with Brewers reliever Josh Hader buckling, Juan Soto ripped a line drive into right field that skipped past Trent Grisham and unleashed bedlam at Nationals Park.
“You make your own breaks, but in the playoffs you have to get a couple of lucky bounces,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve seen it the other way where the other team get the lucky bounces or something goes their way. It’s a wacky game, man.”
If Zimmerman didn’t have the decisive hit, his bat died a hero and the face of this franchise since he was a fresh-faced 20-year-old rookie so long ago in 2005, watched as pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson scampered home with the go-ahead run that would lift Washington to the National League wild-card victory.
Afterward, the beer and the champagne flowed for the second time in a week. The Nationals are headed to Los Angeles with work to do. They might have won a playoff game to advance, but they still haven’t won a series. Beating the mighty 106-win Dodgers is a tall task.
But this team has been up to those challenges all season from enduring crippling injuries in May to a 19-31 start to losing ace starter Max Scherzer for seven weeks in July and August, among other trials. They are underdogs now. Maybe that’s what needs to finally happen for the Nationals to make a World Series run.
Zimmerman is in a different role now. Age and chronic foot injuries have limited him in recent years. He’s a part-time first baseman and began the game on the bench. Twice manager Davey Martinez put Zimmerman in the on-deck circle to pinch-hit. Twice he pulled him back when the situation changed. His time would come later when it mattered most. Martinez first let Taylor pinch-hit against Hader because he had previous success against him. That allowed Zimmerman to stand in for lefty batter Adam Eaton.
“I was ready for anything today,” Zimmerman said. “Davey said just to be ready for whatever – whether a double switch or a pinch-hit when guys were on base. Basically from the second or third inning on I was ready to go.”
Hader came into the game with a 2.62 ERA. He was the Brewers’ trump card, an ace reliever who could pitch multiple innings. He was an All-Star on this very field in 2018. But he’d blown a game in Colorado on Saturday that Milwaukee needed with two games to go in the regular season. It might have cost them the N.L. Central title. But if he showed some vulnerability, the challenge was still immense. What was Zimmerman thinking with Michael A. Taylor at first and two out?
“Trying to get a broken-bat single up the middle, I guess,” he cracked. “I don’t know, man. Got a little bit lucky, obviously. Hader is a great pitcher. Not a guy that you want to face a lot. Maybe that was baseball paying us back a little bit.”
Too often in the past Zimmerman and his teammates were left with questions. How did the 2017 Game 5 against the Cubs go so wrong in one horrendous fifth inning? How did they blow a 6-0 lead to the Cardinals in 2012? How did they lose in 18 innings to the Giants in 2014’s Game 2? Why weren’t they quite good enough against the Dodgers in a one-run season-ending loss in 2016?
They’ve never advanced past the N.L. Division Series. Now they get another shot against the Dodgers in a best-of-five series. With so many roster questions looming in the offseason, with Zimmerman’s own future uncertain at age 35, time is running short and they were going to enjoy this one in a joyous locker room.
“It’s so hard to compare teams,” Zimmerman said. “But after the start that we had…Maybe over the last four or five years we started to take winning - not for granted, but it was expected. This year we really got back to every single day you try to win that game and if you win that game enjoy the heck out of it. Because it’s hard to win these games.”
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