Nobody in a Nationals uniform gets a bigger ovation when he steps to the plate these days than Ryan Zimmerman. He’s far from the team’s best player at this point, but with only three home series remaining on the 2021 schedule, everyone in attendance is well aware there are only so many more guaranteed Zimmerman plate appearances to witness.
The original face of the franchise has not yet offered any clues about his intentions beyond this season, though he suggested tonight he probably won’t make a decision until sometime this winter. But as he approaches his 37th birthday, and as the only team he’s ever played for finds itself in the early stages of a rebuilding project, it’s certainly appropriate to wonder if the end of the road is near.
So when Zimmerman steps to the plate and delivers as he did in his first at-bat tonight, blasting one of the longest homers of his career to set the Nationals on their way to an 8-2 victory over the Marlins, why wouldn’t the crowd of 17,030 enjoy every moment of his trip around the bases?
“You just never know when his last one’s going to be,” bench coach Tim Bogar, filling in for Davey Martinez after the manager had a follow-up procedure on his left ankle earlier in the day, said in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But I’d love to see him come back another year. And you never know with this new (collective bargaining agreement) what’s going to happen with the DH, too. That might just open up another year, two, three, four. Who knows?
“I don’t want to say it’s the last home run I see him hit. I don’t want to say it’s the last at-bat I see him (take). I’ve been around him for a shorter period of time in his career, but a lot of those days have been very special. He’s a good man.”
There were other factors that ensured this win, from Erick Fedde’s latest strong start against Miami to clutch hits from Juan Soto and Alcides Escobar to three bases-loaded walks issued by Marlins pitching to four quality innings of relief from Alberto Baldonado, Andres Machado, Austin Voth and Wander Suero.
But before any of that, there was Zimmerman launching a ball into the second deck in right-center field, a swing and a result that could’ve looked appropriate when he was 26 or 36.
Starts have been few and far between of late for Zimmerman, not because he hasn’t merited them but because Josh Bell has been quite good at everything: hitting versus righties, hitting versus lefties, playing first base. The Nationals’ solution for that good-to-have problem: Start both of them when facing a left-handed starter, with Bell in left field and Zimmerman at first base.
As long as Bell can handle the defensive assignment, which he has to date, it makes perfect sense. Zimmerman has mashed lefties for years, and he hasn’t slowed down this season. Entering tonight, he was slugging .588 off them in 102 plate appearances, and he increased that number to a stout .622 when he destroyed Jesús Luzardo’s 3-1 fastball into the second deck in right-center field for the game’s first run.
It was a 442-foot blast, Zimmerman’s longest in three years and the longest opposite-field homer by any National since Statcast began tracking such things in 2015.
“Obviously, some feel better than others,” he said. “But all of them, every homer is cool. Doesn’t matter if it goes into the upper deck or one row out. ... But obviously a good swing. Any time I get a chance to play, I try and do something to contribute and help the team win.”
It was indeed yet another reminder that whatever the soon-to-be 37-year-old decides to do at season’s end, he can still be a meaningful contributor if he wants to.
“I’ve said all along, just like I did last year: This is a decision I’ll be making in the offseason,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll sit down with my family and see where we’re at. This year has gone pretty well. It’s going to depend on how I feel after the season. It’s going to depend on how I feel Dec. 1, honestly, if I want to start working out and getting ready to prepare to be productive for another major league season.”
Zimmerman’s 14th homer staked the Nationals to an early lead, but they didn’t quit there against Luzardo, their former pitching prospect. They got another run in the third on Lane Thomas’ double and Soto’s two-out RBI single. Then they added two more in the fifth on Escobar’s double and a bases-loaded walk drawn by Bell.
That was enough run support for Fedde, especially against a Marlins lineup he has owned for several years now. The right-hander entered with an 0.98 ERA in five career starts against Miami, having just recently struck out a career-high 10 batters in his most recent matchup, and though that number went up to 1.10, it’s not like he pitched poorly in this one.
Fedde allowed just one run in five innings, that lone blemish coming in the form of Lewin Díaz’s leadoff homer in the fifth. He allowed only two other batters to reach base safely, didn’t walk anybody and struck out eight.
“There’s definitely guys that I’ve faced before, and maybe I feel more comfortable against (them) and how to go after them to be successful,” Fedde said of his success against the Marlins. “It’s always nice to feel like you have a team’s number when you step out there.”
If there was anything to nitpick about Fedde’s outing, it was his high pitch count. He had trouble getting quick outs, and so that left his total at 95 after the fifth. And with his spot due to bat in the bottom of the inning, Bogar didn’t take any chances and sent up a pinch-hitter.
The Nationals would need four innings of quality relief to emerge victorious. That’s been a tall task all summer, but on this night the group rose to the challenge.
“I think our bullpen did a great job,” Bogar said. “We were hoping to get Fedde at least through six, but I think he threw over 30 pitches his last inning. So it was a little stressful and he got up there in the 90s, and it was just best to move on. We’re well-rested right now. The guys were ready to go tonight. We tried to put them in positions to succeed, and it just worked out really well.”