Ryan Zimmerman has seen it all when it comes to the Washington Nationals, outside of the first five months of the 2005 campaign, but since he made his MLB debut, on September 1, 2005, the now-35-year-old, 15-year veteran has been part of the good and bad of baseball in the nation’s capital.
So, he was asked in his pregame press conference before Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night, what’s changed between September of ‘05 and October of 2019?
Such a loaded question,” Zimmerman said. “Well, we have our own stadium now, so that’s good to start with.”
“I think, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit, I think getting the stadium was huge. And I’ve said that from the beginning. Coming down, being owned by MLB, it’s tough to be a team that doesn’t have their own ownership group. Once the Lerner family bought the team and we got the new stadium, you at least had sort of a foundation and a base to start off of.”
Zimmerman, of course, christened Nationals Park with a walk-off home run in the first game played in the ballpark in 2008, which was his fourth career walk-off winner to that point. He is up to 11 total now.
The ballpark isn’t the only change in his 15-year career, of course.
“And then from there they started growing, the farm system,” he continued. “The people that build the front office that nobody ever really talks about that have been here pretty much as long as I’ve been here, that make a lot of the decisions that nobody talks about that are huge decisions.
“And then you can go into the neighborhood, the area around the ballpark that’s grown so much. The fan base, obviously, basically starting new in ‘05. It’s been much talked about, as well, to the point where in ‘12 we made the playoffs a year or two earlier than people kind of thought we would.
“And then from there we’ve kind of been expected to make the playoffs every year.
“So you’re really talking about ‘08 to ‘12, so four years of growth for an organization to then be expected to make the playoffs. And then all of a sudden if you don’t get past the first round of the playoffs, you’re a huge disappointment. So it all happened kind of fast. Which, if you play at this level, that’s kind of the expectations you want. You want your fans to be disappointed if you don’t make the playoffs. But it all happened very fast.”
“It’s been fun to be a part of,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been fun to kind of grow with the fans, with the neighborhood, with the community, with the organization, really.”
A big part of the organization’s growth, who has been in D.C. almost as long as Zimmerman, is GM Mike Rizzo, who came over from Arizona in 2006, as an assistant to former Nationals’ General Manager Jim Bowden, then took over the job in 2009, amidst a scandal involving a player named Smiley Gonzalez (or, really, Carlos Alvarez), who has been mostly forgotten in all that’s happened since.
But Rizzo, Zimmerman said, has been a catalyst for the change in the organization that got them where they are now, and he’s changed with the times and the team.
“Yeah, I think Mike’s a baseball guy,” Zimmerman told reporters in Houston.
“He always has been. He leans on his scouts, on his guys that go watch games. He’s evolved just like everyone else has with the analytics and all the data that’s available.
“That information is useful. I don’t think you have to be one way or the other. I think you can kind of blend it together. And I think he does a really good job of that.”
“But he’s huge on chemistry and clubhouse stuff,” Zimmerman added, “not bringing in bad teammates, not bringing in bad guys.
“Before he makes really any sort of moves he will reach out to us and ask if we’ve heard anything about this player or that player. So he’s big on that kind of stuff.”
“I think we’ve always had good groups of guys here,” Zimmerman said.
“And obviously talented, as well, but when you get that blend of talent and guys who are in it for the right things, you get special groups.”
The current group is the one the one that finally got them past the NLDS (after four tries) and into the World Series for the first time by a D.C.-based team since 1933. Zimmerman touched on a number of his current teammates in the interview.
Max Scherzer, who joined the organization on a 7-year/$210M deal in the winter of 2015-16?
“I mean, you’re talking about borderline — it might not even be borderline — best free agent signing of all time,” Zimmerman said.
“What he’s done since he’s come here, who he’s been, obviously, as a player, but I think people watch how he goes about his business, watch how hard he competes.”
And Scherzer, Zimmerman added, has helped change the culture in D.C.
“When he’s out there pitching and, unfortunately, more when he’s not pitching in the dugout, I mean, he pushes you to the limit,” Zimmerman explained.
“In the dugout sometimes it’s from annoyance. But on the mound -- he challenges everyone in every aspect of whether it’s the actual game, whether it’s working out before the game, whether it’s when the pitchers go out there and hit. Everything is a competition to him.
“And I think you can kind of breed -- it’s contagious, I guess, is the best way to put it. If that guy’s going to do it, and everyone else has got to do it. I think just his mindset, his competitiveness, the way he goes about his business. He’s a special guy and a special teammate.”
How about Stephen Strasburg, who just completed a dominant postseason run, going (5-0) with a 1.98 ERA in six games, five starts, and 36 1⁄3 IP. It’s been a long journey from ‘09 No. 1 overall pick, to Tommy John surgery recipient, who was shut down before the franchise got to the postseason for the first time in 2012, but has developed into a pitcher who’s every bit as good as scouts said he was going to be before he was drafted.
Zimmerman went there in his discussion of Rizzo’s controversial decision to shut Strasburg down late in the 2012 campaign, with an eye on the pitcher’s health over all else.
“I can’t promise you, I can probably tell you that he wouldn’t be the pitcher he is now if he would have -- say he pitches and we go on to win the World Series that year, you’re talking however many more innings,” Zimmerman explained.
“Yeah, I mean, I think it would definitely have affected him. Who knows, we could have won the World Series that year and he could be fine, too.
“But I think the most important thing is the organization really did have the best interests in mind for the player.
“And I think sometimes that gets lost in the equation. So I respect the heck out of them for doing that for Stephen.”
“I really think the organization had the players’ best interests in mind. It wasn’t a popular decision. I don’t think -- I think Stephen wanted to pitch. I think obviously all of us on the team wanted him to pitch. So sometimes the hardest decisions aren’t the most popular decisions.
“But there’s been a couple of guys that have tried to push through that kind of innings limit or threshold, and a lot of them haven’t done so well with it. And everyone said, You never know when you’re going to get another chance to make the playoffs. You never know this. You never know a lot of things. It’s easy to say that then.”
While Zimmerman, Scherzer, and Strasburg are part of the “old guard” in D.C. at this point in their respective careers, the next generation has been integrated into the lineup, and it’s 21-year-old outfielder Juan Soto who has taken the league by storm in the last two seasons and especially this postseason.
Going into Game 7 on Wednesday, Soto was 7 for 23 (.304/.407/.783) in the World Series, with two doubles, three home runs, four walks, and seven Ks in 27 plate appearances and he was thriving on the biggest stage in baseball.
“I think we all enjoy playing in October. I think that’s why you play the game,” Zimmerman said.
“As far as how he rises to the occasion, I think he’s just a really talented player. People that usually have success in the playoffs and are really talented do it the entire year, as well. It’s just not as many people see it. Now once the whole world sees it everyone talks about it.
“Juan has kind of been doing this literally since the day he came up. And the scary thing is he’s only going to get better with the more experience that he gets and as he learns himself as a player and as a hitter. So, yeah, the sky’s the limit for him. It’s been fun to watch so far, and I look forward to watching it for years to come.”
Will he be around for years to come?
Zimmerman has been clear that though he just wrapped up his 6-year/$100M extension, signed in 2012, he doesn’t think he’s done with baseball just yet, though he and the team will likely have to figure out a new deal since the Nationals picking up his $18M option for 2020 doesn’t seem likely.
He went 5 for 24 with a home run and four walks in the World Series, and in what might be his final season in the nation’s capital, Zimmerman helped the Nationals win it all.
Though he missed significant time on the Injured List, Zimmerman was able to return and be a part of the team that finally brought a World Series championship to D.C., 95 years after the Washington Senators won the last one for the nation’s capital all the way back in 1924.
After fighting back from 19-31 to make the Postseason, coming back to win the Wild Card Game, and the NLDS, sweeping the NLCS, and avoiding elimination in Game 6 of the Fall Classic before taking Game 7, the Nationals finally did it, and Zimmerman’s 15th campaign in the majors ended with a World Series win.
“Unbelievable,” Zimmerman said in the visitor’s clubhouse in Minute Maid Park after the Game 7.
“World champion. No one can ever take it away from me. So happy. So proud of this group of guys, everything we’ve gone through this year. To win this game tonight like we won it, kind of fitting for our season, but unbelievable group of guys.”
“Same story over and over again it seemed like all year long. You know we had a choice, we could either quit, or we could fight, and we chose to fight. It’s an unbelievable feeling, man, it’s even better than I ever thought it would be.”