A fine time to pay up
The Cubs have been giving Zimmerman plenty of chances to beat them. He finally made them pay.
The ball seemed to pause in the air before it plummeted, because for a man with a sometimes-troublesome aversion to launch angle, Ryan Zimmerman had hit Mike Montgomery’s pitch somewhere near the stars.
From where Sean Doolittle stood in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, he could not see the ball’s trajectory. He watched Zimmerman instead. From where Jayson Werth stood on deck, he couldn’t tell much about the flyball’s destination either. He looked to Zimmerman, too. No National has mastered stoicism quite like Zimmerman, who stood nearly still, leaving everyone in suspense.
But when the ball touched down in the flower bed, Zimmerman gave the emphatic signal, throwing his arms wide and smiling wider. His smile revealed a man who had just replaced two years’ worth of grisly at-bats against the Chicago Cubs with an unforgettable one, a man who had proved to a wily opposing manager that he cannot be taken lightly. His smile mirrored the state of the franchise built around him — overjoyed, relieved and hopeful — because that swing changed the Nationals’ prognosis in the NLDS entirely.
“It couldn’t happen to a finer guy, number one. He’s a franchise guy here,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “. . . He’s been known to come through for years and years, especially late in the game like that. You could tell he was psyched and the fans are psyched.”
Something has been different about Zimmerman lately, a little extra energy, just a little something more. When he scampered around the bases in the futile fifth inning — bouncing off first to tempt Jon Lester, stealing second with room to spare, leaping headfirst into third on a wild pitch — he seemed to be willing the Nationals to a run. He could not do it.
But the ball he hit high into the night Saturday seemed to carry the entire franchise with it, up into the wind that was blowing that way, up into the flower bed — instead of Ben Zobrist’s glove — one of the first breaks he has gotten against the Cubs in some time.
“Just happy to put a good swing on a pitch and maybe got a little lucky,” Zimmerman said. “Who knows?
When it comes to the Cubs, Zimmerman has been the goat.
Last season, Joe Maddon walked Bryce Harper six times in one game to get to Zimmerman, who could never come up with a hit and left 14 runners on base — a major league record. In 84 plate appearances against the Maddon-managed Cubs entering this series, Zimmerman was hitting .144. With Harper’s big-strike potential, Anthony Rendon’s consistency and Daniel Murphy’s vaunted playoff history against the Cubs, Maddon and company seemed likely to target Zimmerman as a weak link once again.
Saturday, Maddon left in lefthanded Montgomery to face Zimmerman after Murphy had singled to put two men on. Zimmerman punished him for the mismatch.
“He’s such a heavy groundball guy, righties or lefties,” Maddon said later. “For me, it’s such a perfect situation for him to put the ball on the ground, but it just did not happen.”
Zimmerman had, in fact, spent most of his NLDS hitting weak groundballs around the infield, looking somewhat out of sync. But then, the man so long doomed by bad launch angles hit a ball with so much of it that no one seemed able to project its landing. The man so long unable to punish the Cubs for underestimating him finally did so.
“Maybe I’m due,” said Zimmerman, who admitted it felt nice to get a big hit against the Cubs, since, “I haven’t really done much — ever — against them.”
He certainly has now, and the Nationals would probably have signed for Zimmerman to leave 40 runners on last summer if it guaranteed he would cash in runners Saturday. That swing sent the Nationals to Chicago in a 1-1 series tie. It also sent them to Chicago with a rejuvenated offense, and a veteran first baseman and emotional leader recently revived.
“I think Zim’s ranks number one right now on my list for all of our homers,” said Harper, asked to place his earlier game-tying shot in the Nationals’ home run pantheon.
Wherever it ranks, that home run changed this series, if only because a man who could never hit the Cubs suddenly did, just in time to punish them when it matters most.
“Just happy to put a good swing on a pitch and maybe got a little lucky,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said of his home run.