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Ryan Zimmerman’s key at bat helps Nationals to a long-awaited playoff celebration

Ryan Zimmerman’s key at bat helps Nationals to a long-awaited playoff celebration

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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On this date: The Nationals played their first game ever

On this date: The Nationals played their first game ever

It seems like eons ago that the Washington Nationals played in their first game after departing from Montreal.

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of their inaugural game as they brought professional baseball back to the District of Columbia.

The Nationals opened up the 2005 season on the road at Citizens Bank Park with a matchup against their future rival in the Phillies.

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The game didn't go as planned for Nats manager Frank Robinson, with his squad dropping the first game of their 162-game slate with a defeat, but it was a return to normalcy for baseball fans in the nation's capital who had longed for a team to root for since the Senators left town 34 years prior.

The Phillies beat the Nats 8-4 on Opening Day, but for fans in the District, there was now a team to cheer on when they returned home a few days later for the home opener at RFK Stadium.

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Nats GM Mike Rizzo displays Commissioner's Trophy in neighborhood during quarantine

Nats GM Mike Rizzo displays Commissioner's Trophy in neighborhood during quarantine

Now this is the type of content we love to see. 

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo found a pretty cool yet responsible way to bring some cheer to his neighborhood in the midst of social distancing on Thursday. 

On the day that should have been the Nats’ 2020 home opener Washington’s GM Mike Rizzo displayed the World Series trophy in the window of his home in Navy Yard.

According to The Washington Post’s reporter Barry Svrluga, Rizzo’s gesture was “in honor of Opening Day!” 

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Of course, fans loved this idea. I mean who wouldn’t? 

Fans passing by even stopped to take a picture with the trophy. 

Although we were all thrilled to return to Nationals Park to celebrate the defending World Champions, Rizzo’s trophy display was a way to spread some joy until we can reunite again. 

On a recent conference call Rizzo told reporters, “This is going to be a very, very special Opening Day for us when it happens, so we still have that to look forward to... On the brighter side, the glass half full view is that we’re the reigning world champions and we still are clutching hard to that trophy. We’ve got ourselves a banner-raising ceremony coming, we’ve got ourselves some beautiful rings that we’re going to be able to wear around D.C. in the very near future, so although we’re thinking daily and hourly about the humanity of what’s going on right now, we also have that to look forward to when we get through this thing and we come out the other side and baseball begins again.”

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