There was an interesting moment in the clubhouse after the Nationals' 6-5 win on Tuesday night, when Ryan Zimmerman (the third baseman who won the game with a walk-off homer) was asked about Ian Desmond (the shortstop who almost lost it with an error only to save it with a missile on a relay throw home):
"He's young," Zimmerman said. "I think he's very, very talented, and he thinks he can get everyone out, which is a good mindset to have. He'll learn when not to throw balls, when to throw balls, and it's just going to be part of the stuff we have to go through with him. But I think it's way more worth it to have him out there than to worry about that little stuff."
We'll pause here for a parenthetical: Zimmerman is 358 days older than Desmond. He was drafted a year later. And while he obviously rocketed to the big leagues soon after finishing his career at the University of Virginia, he isn't handfuls of years more experienced than Desmond.
But there's a reason why Zimmerman can say things like that and come off sounding like a 10-year veteran, not a 25-year-old just entering the prime of his career. It's why general manager Mike Rizzo, when scouting Zimmerman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, wrote in his report that Zimmerman was as ready for the pros as any player he'd seen in a long time. It's why the Nationals made the five-year, $45 million deal they gave Zimmerman last April the first stake they put in the ground to build a contending roster in the future.
It's because Zimmerman is the guy they turn to in a bind, expecting him to deliver. He's their leader, their captain, and Stephen Strasburg notwithstanding, the identity of their team.
He proved it again on Tuesday night, hitting two homers, including a walk-off blast off Luke Gregerson to give the Nationals a 6-5 win over the Padres in a game they easily could've lost.
The Nationals let a 5-2 lead squirt away in the eighth inning with all manner of mistakes. The tying run scored when Desmond threw wide of Adam Dunn, making an ill-advised rushed delivery while trying to turn a double play. Tyler Clippard allowed two more inherited runners to score and manager Jim Riggleman - rather than starting the inning with Clippard - got "overconfident," by his own admission, and let Livan Hernandez start another inning after pitching seven strong ones in 99-degree heat.
"That one would have been on me if we lost it," Riggleman said. "Tonight, they picked me up."
Ultimately, and most significantly, Zimmerman did.
"He kind of displayed everything there," Riggleman said. "Zim's just a baseball player. He's clutch, but he's a good hitter, he's got power, he can field, he can do it all. He just put it all on display there tonight."
The third baseman, whose sense of the moment is as keen as anyone's, squared up an 0-1 fastball from Gregerson to send the Nationals Park crowd of 14,039 home happy. He's now 6-for-9 with three homers and six RBI, along with a walk, in two games since being named to the ballot for the final spot on the National League All-Star roster.
The timing is pure coincidence - Zimmerman joked after the game that he was just waiting for the contest to be announced so he could get hot - but more importantly for the Nationals, their cornerstone is coming out of a long slump when they need to get hot before the All-Star break.
He hit .245 in June, but said his work with hitting coach Rick Eckstein has him feeling back to normal at the plate. His game-winner went to center field, a sign that Zimmerman's about to get hot; when he's hitting well, his homers frequently fly out to center and right fields - as one of them did in his last multi-homer game (also against the Padres, on May 30).
"I'm finally starting to get back to where I want to be, so it's good," Zimmerman said.
It's no coincidence that the Nationals' offense is coming out of its month-long stupor at the same time Zimmerman is shaking free of his. If the Nationals were a rock group, Zimmerman would be their drummer, the one who keeps the time and makes them go.
"Everybody knows Zim is one of the best players in baseball," Hernandez said. "We expect a lot from Zim, and this is what he does: hit home runs and making good plays. It's something we see every day. It's nothing new."
What is also becoming routine is this: Zimmerman, standing at his locker in the back of the Nationals' clubhouse, deftly fielding questions on a number of his teammates just as Riggleman does after games. He's growing more comfortable into his face-of-the-franchise skin, adopting the rounded tenor and self-assured expressions typical of locker-room leaders.
On Sunday, when the Nationals chartered a boat to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the Potomac River, Zimmerman was the one responsible for making the arrangements and footing the bill. It was a gesture that typified not only one of the team's wealthiest players, but also its figurehead.
So, too, was the walk-off homer Zimmerman hit to rescue the Nationals in a game where they appeared to be sinking.
"The incentive is to go try to win the ballgame, and help your team win," Riggleman said. "I think that's what Zim was doing," Riggleman said.