A fine time to pay up

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHELSEA JANES chelsea.janes@wash­post.com

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.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“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.

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