WASHINGTON, D.C. — Into the press conference room they strode, the one who came and the one who stayed, to discuss the perfect narrative they had provided. The Nationals won Game 4 of the NLDS 6–1 to force a cross-country flight to Los Angeles, and they did it thanks to seven sparkling innings from Max Scherzer, the man they signed to the richest contract in franchise history, and a three-run homer by Ryan Zimmerman, the man who has been here longer than any other athlete in the city and whose contract will likely expire after this season.
They sat down, their faces awash in the lights from the cameras. They listened to questions about that storyline. And then they set about taking it apart.
“There’s been a lot of people that think these are my last games,” said Zimmerman.
“I really don’t think these are his last games,” said Scherzer. “All of you think it’s his last games.”
“The last home game, they tried to give me, like, a standing ovation,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I feel good. I think that we got plenty to go.”
And a few moments later:
“We’re a bunch of viejos,” said Scherzer. “We’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”
“Yeah, nice way to say veterans,” said Zimmerman.
“I feel young and I’m older than you,” said Scherzer.
All right, all right. But come on: Scherzer signs a seven-year, $210 million deal in 2015 and spends his introductory press conference talking about doing what it takes to win. Then, starting three days after throwing a scoreless inning in relief in the Nats’ Game 2 win, he guts out perhaps the most stunning performance of his postseason career. He punctuates it by escaping a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the seventh, throwing almost sidearm to get his pitches across the plate.
And Zimmerman! The first draft pick, in 2005, of a franchise that barely existed; the only person remaining from the days of RFK Stadium and 100-loss seasons; a 35-year-old who spent three months on the injured list with plantar fasciitis in his right foot—that man brings 36,847 to their feet with a bomb to dead center!
The Nationals could lose as many as six of their core players next year. MVP candidate third baseman Anthony Rendon will be a free agent. Co-ace Stephen Strasburg can opt out of his deal. The club can opt out of deals with rightfielder Adam Eaton, catcher Yan Gomes, closer Sean Doolittle and Zimmerman. Seven months ago, superstar rightfielder Bryce Harper, a career Nat, signed with the Phillies for 13 years and $330 million, the largest free-agent contract in North American sports history. But on Monday night, two athletes without D.C. roots who nonetheless made commitments to this city of transients kept at bay, for one more night, the mighty Dodgers. Isn’t that incredible?
“I think it is,” said rightfielder Adam Eaton. “I’m a fan of baseball. That’s pretty cool. Your names are supposed to do that. And when guys who are this dedicated to an organization produce, I think that’s huge.”
Even in the moment, Zimmerman batted away praise. With two on and two out in the fifth inning, Washington up 2–1, he demolished a shoulder-high Pedro Báez fastball. It hung in the air for more than six seconds, fighting with the wind, until finally it landed just over the fence on the grass of the batter’s eye. The Nationals spilled out of the dugout. Zimmerman took, briefly, the curtain call the fans demanded. But two frames later, when manager Dave Martínez emerged to pull Doolittle after one and a third perfect innings, Zimmerman had moved on. The infielders gathered on the mound to await Martínez.
“That was awesome,” Zimmerman said.
“Uh, thanks, man,” said Doolittle. “But your thing was way cooler.”
Zimmerman laughed and shrugged.
After the game, the moment seemed to linger. Fans were still buzzing as they left Nationals Park. Writers sat at their keyboards, trying to capture the glory of a night when a team that has seen only playoff disappointment seemed to glimpse something more. And Scherzer and Zimmerman? They finished their press conference and walked gingerly down the hall to the clubhouse, joking lightly about Scherzer’s level of exhaustion. Then they showered and changed and headed home. They had to get to sleep. They had another game to play.