WASHINGTON — Bottle of beer in hand, Ryan Zimmerman stood alone in the Nationals Park home clubhouse for a few moments, taking in the scene while his teammates celebrated reaching Washington's first World Series since 1933.
Eventually, someone threw an arm around the 35-year-old Zimmerman's shoulders and ushered him back into the fray, where he joined others in chugging alcohol out of the NL Championship Series trophy after completing a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. Only fitting that the long-time "face of the franchise" would be right in the middle of things for the club's biggest moment since it arrived in the nation's capital from Montreal.
"I've seen him tear up a couple times, already. Just getting past the first round, and now that we're on to the World Series," shortstop Trea Turner said amid the frivolity Tuesday night, talking about the first guy ever drafted by the Nationals in 2005 and the only player to wear their uniform in each and every one of their 15 seasons (even once when the word across the chest read "Natinals").
"He's put his heart and soul into this organization," Turner said. "He sacrificed a lot. And he's given this organization a lot. For me, that speaks a lot about him and his family. I can't say enough nice things about him, because he's a good person and a great ballplayer. I love watching him bat in this order and drive in runs for us and be a part of this run."
When the Fall Classic begins next week in either Houston or New York — the Astros lead the Yankees 2-1 in the AL Championship Series, with Game 4 postponed from Wednesday until Thursday because of rain in the forecast — expect Zimmerman to be in Washington's starting lineup, hitting sixth or so in the batting order and manning first base.
On the long path to get there, he's set Expos-Nationals franchise career records for hits, doubles, total bases, homers and RBIs.
He's also been around for every high and every low.
"Me, the fans, the community — we've kind of grown up together. I was 20 years old when I got here," said Zimmerman, who grew up not too far away in Virginia. "We were not very good. And the fans ... we went through those things together."
It's true. He's been through all of it.
The ex-Expos' earliest days in dilapidated RFK Stadium. The game-ending homer he hit in the first game played at the Nationals' gleaming new stadium in 2008, one of his 11 career walk-off shots, tied for the second-most in NL history, one behind Stan Musial's mark.
The consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009. The surprising surge to an NL East title in 2012. The collapse in Game 5 of that year's NL Division Series against the Cardinals. Subsequent NLDS exits in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
"Sometimes," said Zimmerman, who's been texting with former Nationals teammates lately, "you've got to wait for good things."
And so here he is, in what might just be the last hurrah: The Nationals hold an $18 million contract option for 2020, a lot of money for a player whose injuries limited him to 52 games and a .257 average with six homers and 27 RBIs this season.
The righty-batting Zimmerman, who says he plans to continue playing beyond this year, has stepped to the fore in these playoffs, batting .290 with a homer and five RBIs, along with his usual stellar defence at first, to earn six consecutive starts, including against right-handers.
"He's the classiest big leaguer I've ever been around. He's the culmination of a lot of hard work. The guy's been through some trials and tribulations. We all forget about the first six, seven years, when he played 160 games every year. I saw needles in his shoulder, I saw him play when he probably shouldn't have played earlier in his career," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "That's the kind of man he is and the kind of player he is. You see when he's a healthy player, he's a pretty damn good one still."
For a time, 2012 Rookie of the Year and 2015 MVP Bryce Harper supplanted Zimmerman as the player most associated with the Nationals.
But which one is still in town today?
Zimmerman gets to relish what's been accomplished while the club has won 16 of its past 18 games.
And he gets to think about what it's like to finally be this close to a championship.
"You hug him — I hugged him after all these wins — and you can just tell it's a genuine hug," outfielder Adam Eaton said Tuesday as the celebration raged on after a 7-4 win. "This is for him. He's been here from the beginning, the face of this organization for however many years. He's always wanted to bring a championship. He's worked his rear end off to do it. And to now have an opportunity to do it, I can only imagine how he'll sleep tonight. ... Good things happen to good people. We're going to continue to play for him and hopefully continue to make him happy."
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