Nationals' Strengths No. 9: Ryan Zimmerman's legacy




 

With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we're ranking the Nationals' 10 biggest strengths that we're looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Up next are the career achievements that have made Ryan Zimmerman immortal in D.C.

In order to put into words what Ryan Zimmerman means to the D.C. fan base and Nationals organization, you have to start at the beginning.

Washington drafted the University of Virginia product fourth overall in 2005, making him the first draft pick the Nationals made after moving from Montreal. The club was mired in a state of utter dysfunction, having changed locations on an abbreviated timeline while hiring employees on the fly. As then-GM Jim Bowden told Washingtonian magazine, the team needed a symbol of a brighter future.

"We had our first draft in June," Bowden said. "The whole idea there was we wanted to get the face of the franchise. We had the fourth pick, and we thought, 'How can we get a local kid? Who can be that guy to represent what we wanted Washington to be represented by baseball-wise and in the community?' And Ryan Zimmerman fit all of that."

The young infielder made his major-league debut that following September before entering the 2006 season as the Nationals' Opening Day third baseman. Washington would finish with a losing record not only that season, but the five seasons after that as well. The club placed last in the NL East four times in six years. Only the small-market Orioles, Royals and Pirates had fewer wins over that span.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman blossomed into one of the few players who made games worth attending. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006, earned Gold Glove honors in 2009 and received his second starting Silver Slugger the following season.

The star third baseman earned the nickname "Mr. Walk-Off" with a myriad clutch hits, including a game-winning home run in the team's first game at Nationals Park in 2008. While it may be fair to say his talent was wasted on a club toiling in the NL East basement, his production wasn't lost on the fan base.

Zimmerman signed a six-year, $100 million extension in 2012, cementing his place in the team's future. Jayson Werth had joined the team just a year prior on a monster seven-year deal. Stephen Strasburg was set to pitch his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery and Bryce Harper was on the cusp of the majors. Despite all the losing, Zimmerman had faith that the organization was on the right path toward turning things around.

"They've given me everything," Zimmerman said at a press conference attended by 16 of his teammates to announce the deal, as quoted by the Washington Post. "They've given me a chance to play at this level, a chance to do everything I've done. It felt right to kind of give them something back and give them the rest of my career to produce and, ultimately, win a World Series."

Give something back he did. Zimmerman climbed the franchise leaderboards in nearly every offensive statistic. He's the Nationals' all-time leader (2005-present) in hits (1,784), home runs (270), doubles (401), runs batted in (1,015), runs scored (936), walks (630) and games played (1,689). Although not enough to earn a place in Cooperstown, Zimmerman is a lock for the team's ring of honor.

A little over a month after he inked that contract, the Nationals kicked off a 2012 season in which they made the playoffs for the first time since moving to D.C. The return of postseason baseball to the District meant just as much to the fans as it did to Zimmerman. No one knew better than them what the organization had endured to get there.

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But over the next few years, the narrative shifted from the Nationals being unable to win to the Nationals being unable to win in the playoffs. 2012. 2014. 2016. 2017. They took the NL East crown each of those years but each of those years failed to get past the National League Division Series.

And as the Nationals established themselves as contenders, Zimmerman's health began to fail him.

In 2014, a fractured thumb and hamstring strain limited him to 61 games. A degenerative shoulder inhibited his ability to throw across the diamond, forcing the Nationals to move Zimmerman over to first base. He missed seven weeks in 2015 with plantar fasciitis and made two separate trips to the disabled list the year after that. Zimmerman bounced back with an All-Star campaign in 2017 but played just 137 games between the last two seasons thanks to recurring plantar fasciitis and oblique injuries.

When Zimmerman returned from his second IL stint last season on Sept. 1, the Nationals were hunting for a playoff spot after crawling their way back from a 19-31 start. He didn't start every day, but the first baseman's value as a veteran leader in the clubhouse was undeniable.

"He's a captain, he's a leader, he's on the leadership council," GM Mike Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington in January. "He's been that way for a long time. He's a leader by example more so than a boisterous, pound-the-table-type of guy. But I do know one thing: When Zimmerman talks, people listen. He doesn't say a whole lot of stuff but when he talks you better listen."

But starting the postseason on the bench didn't stop Zimmerman from delivering clutch October moments. Entering the Wild Card Game as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning with the Nationals down 3-1, Zimmerman delivered a broken-bat single that put the tying run on base. He hit a double off the bench in Game 2 of the NLDS and started every game after that.

Zimmerman hit .255 in the playoffs with a pair of homers. One padded the Nationals' lead in a close NLDS Game 4 against the Dodgers. The other came off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series, giving Zimmerman the honor of hitting the first Fall Classic blast in Nationals history.

When the Nationals won it all in Game 7 as Michael Brantley struck out swinging, there was Zimmerman at first base-his arms raised to the sky, his face showing a mixed expression of joy and disbelief. The Nationals, and Ryan Zimmerman, were World Series champions. It wouldn't have been right if one happened without the other.

This season was supposed to be a victory lap for the first baseman. When play does finally resume, it'll be a chance for him to raise a World Series banner in front of a fan base that he's always wanted to play in front of. These days, Nationals fans may be more interested in attending games to see players like Juan Soto or Max Scherzer. But those who've been around since the beginning understand what Zimmerman has done for the District both on the field and off of it.

It's not clear how many years he has left before he calls it career, but one thing is certain: Regardless of whether or not baseball returns in 2020, Zimmerman has nothing left to prove in D.C.

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Nationals Strengths No. 9: Ryan Zimmermans legacy originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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