Ryan Zimmerman was in the middle of giving a post-game interview Friday night when the televisions opposite his locker stole his attention. The Nationals’ 10-0 victory over the Cardinals had just equaled the team’s entire win total from 2011.
Behind the crowd of reporters was the Atlanta Braves’ game against the Philadelphia Phillies, and on the screen was Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr. rounding the bases after a three-run homer in the top of the 10th inning that broke a 5-5 tie.
As teammates around the clubhouse shouted “He got him!” as Mayberry’s ball dipped over the left field wall at Turner Field, Zimmerman only smiled.
“This is way more fun than anything I’ve done in the past,” he said. “Every game counts now. Every game we win, we control our own destiny, pretty much. If we play the game we’ve been playing all year, it’s up to us.”
A week ago, after the Nationals had lost the third in what would become a five-game losing streak, Zimmerman joked with reporters when they asked about the losing streak. “Three, ugh, we’re ready to quit,” Zimmerman said with heavy sarcasm. “Everything’s going to go into shambles.”
Friday night Zimmerman listened as the 29,499 in attendance at Nationals Park showered Gio Gonzalez with cheers. Having watched the Nationals’ offense score 10 runs — capped by a two-run homer for Zimmerman — they chanted Gonzalez’s name, gave him a standing ovation when he took the field to begin the ninth inning of his first career shutout and exploded when Bryce Harper squeezed the final out.
He couldn’t remember ever being a part of a scene like that.
“Not here,” he said with a laugh. “In other stadiums, when I’m on the road. But that’s great. I think what’s been happening this year — and we have a long ways to go and we haven’t done anything yet — but what we have done is give this city a baseball team to cheer for. And they’ve wanted that for a long time.”
If there’s any player in the Nationals’ clubhouse who knows just how long, it’s Zimmerman. And so it’s been especially pleasing for him to watch as the crowds have come more consistently, how they’ve shown off their baseball knowledge by cheering for individual feats even when unprompted by the scoreboard.
The Nationals are 38-24 inside Nationals Park this season. It’s the best home winning percentage they’ve ever had, but then, that’s bound to happen when you have the best winning percentage in the major leagues.
Visions of playoff baseball are no doubt dancing in the heads of Nationals fans (and have been for a long time), but the Nationals insist they’re not dancing in their own heads just yet. Or, at least, that they’re not looking that far ahead out of necessity.
“There’s a long way to go,” Zimmerman said. “There’ll be a long way to go until there’s not any way to go. That’s the way we’re looking at it. We’re not taking anything for granted, we’re not satisfied with what we’ve done, we’ve put ourselves in a good position and I think if we can take anything out of what we’ve done that’s all we can take. I think the moment you become satisfied or become happy with what you’ve done then a team like the Braves is going to get hot and catch you. We’ve just got to keep working and keep going.”
Maybe it was good, then, that the Nationals went through a five-game losing streak earlier this week. Good for them to remember that everything they’ve built can be ruined by a terrible final month of the season. The gas pedal must remain firmly pressed until the reach their finish line — a line they hope won’t come for a while.
Manager Davey Johnson held a team meeting Wednesday afternoon reminding his players that this game, the way they’ve played it, is fun. And that’s what they should be having out there.
The Nationals haven’t lost since and they’ve scored 26 runs in three games.
“I think (the losing streak) shows you that anything can happen and I don’t think this team has ever lost sight of that,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone thinks we’re inexperienced and all that, which we are, but it’s a good group of guys and when you have guys like Jayson (Werth) and (Mark DeRosa) and those guys who’ve been through everything, (it helps).
“(Chad) Tracy was telling me the other day he was on a Diamondbacks team that was five or six games up in Sept. and he said the Dodgers pretty much sprinted by them. So we have guys who’ve been in every situation and that helps us — but this team is just, really, as bad as it sounds, carefree and one day at a time. I wish I had something better for you. It’s kind of boring but that’s what it is.”