It’s an odd existence this franchise has lived, what with 36 years spent north of the border in Montreal followed by the last 13 years in Washington, but by Major League Baseball’s definition the Expos and Nationals count as one franchise.
Whether fans in either city want to embrace that definition or not, there’s no denying the talent that has worn this franchise’s various uniforms, from Andre Dawson to Tim Raines to Gary Carter to Larry Walker to Vladimir Guerrero to Alfonso Soriano to Adam Dunn to Bryce Harper.
And the names that now share the title of franchise home run king belong to Guerrero and Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman etched his place in the franchise record book this evening by clubbing a pair of homers off R.A. Dickey to help lead the Nationals to a 10-5 victory over the Braves. Nobody who ever wore the Expos’ quirky M logo or the Nationals’ curly W logo has hit more than the 243 home runs that came off the bat of Guerrero and Zimmerman.
“Hey, man, that tells you he’s had an outstanding career, and he’s having an outstanding year,” manager Dusty Baker said. “And this franchise had some heck of a players in it from the Montreal days. When you look at Andre Dawson and Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero, and the list goes on and on. They had some dynamite players. Tim Wallach. These are some of the records he’s broken.”
Zimmerman’s record has more to do with longevity than dominance. Guerrero hit his 234 homers in 4,220 plate appearances as an Expo, ultimately not even one-half of his Hall-of-Fame career. Zimmerman needed 6,274 plate appearances to hit his 234 homers, all of them coming as a National, the only club he has known and likely ever will know.
“I guess I’ve played for a long time now if I’ve been able to do something like that,” the 32-year-old first baseman said. “Any time you do anything, franchise records or guys who played here and were incredible players like Vlad was, it’s fun to do that kind of stuff. You think about it and enjoy it tonight, then tomorrow you’ve got to move on. But it’s cool.”
There is still a cooler record for Zimmerman to set, one that surely will mean more to local fans. With three more blasts, he’ll tie Frank Howard as the greatest home run hitters in Washington’s major league history.
Howard’s career is memorialized with a statue outside the home plate entrance at Nationals Park. Zimmerman may not earn that kind of permanent display of greatness, but his significance to D.C. baseball won’t soon be forgotten.
Shoot, if he keeps hitting the way he has through the season’s first 2 1/2 months, he might just wind up with the greatest individual year this city has ever seen firsthand.
Wait, what about Harper’s MVP performance in 2015? Well, through 64 games, Zimmerman is dwarfing his higher-profile teammate in every major statistical department other than on-base percentage. He’s now batting .372 with 19 homers, 52 RBIs and a 1.141 OPS.
“I got the best seat in the house for it,” said Daniel Murphy, no slouch himself with a .345 average, 11 homers and 43 RBIs. “I’ve been on-deck for like, every single one of them. He doesn’t give away a single pitch. It seems like the offense goes through him and Bryce, and it’s been fun to watch.”
Not even a three-day layoff due to a tweaked back could slow Zimmerman down. He stepped right back into the lineup tonight and promptly homered off Dickey in the bottom of the first inning, then added another moonshot (measured at 446 feet) in the bottom of the sixth to put the Nationals on top for good.
“It’s three games,” Zimmerman shrugged. “It wasn’t like a week. It’s like the All-Star break. I was able to do some stuff. It’s not like I didn’t hit or do anything for three days. You don’t ever want to miss extended periods of times, but three days is manageable, I guess you could say.”
That tonight’s homers came not only after a brief layoff but also against a knuckleballer added to the impressive nature of events. Then again, this wasn’t the first time he’s had success against Dickey. Zimmerman’s updated career head-to-head stats: 14-for-39, four homers, two doubles, eight RBIs, 1.104 OPS.
What’s his secret facing a knuckleballer?
“Honestly, I don’t have a plan or do much,” he said. “I just go up there and literally just try to see the ball and hit the ball. When you start thinking about it too much, that’s when you get into trouble.”
Zimmerman isn’t getting into much of any trouble these days. After 2 1/2 months, he’s the best hitter in the National League.
And after 13 years, he’s matched the best home run hitter in franchise history.