Ryan Zimmerman’s spirit persisted over the years

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When Dunn left as a free agent after the 2010 season, which featured 93 losses, Zimmerman pondered his future.

“I think from Ryan’s perspective the Nationals were at a crossroads at that point in time,” Van Wagenen said, pointing to conversations that fall with ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo that reassured Zimmerman.

“They were coming off of another difficult season, another losing season, and one of the productive, veteran, high-paid major league players was up for free agency and signed elsewhere. Ryan had to really look around and begin to question whether or not this franchise was going to go down a positive road or whether it was going to continue to repeat the status quo.”

Two days after Dunn joined the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals signed Werth. They won 80 games in 2011 with a largely homegrown roster. They traded for pitcher Gio Gonzalez in the winter. In February, Zimmerman agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract extension that could keep him in a Nationals uniform through 2020.

In April, he proposed to Downen and they set a January wedding date. In September, the Nationals, a team now filled with players who truly believed they were good enough to be the best, clinched the first playoff berth for a D.C. team since the 1948 Homestead Grays.

October brings new possibilities

“This year has been so surreal,” Downen said. “I feel like sometimes this isn’t happening, or I’m in ‘The Truman Show’ and I’m like, ‘Is this all being set up?’ Because this has been the most perfect year. Everything has been happening exactly the way you envision it to happen in your best possible expectations.”

Savoring the experience

Examining the reasons why Zimmerman became an exception, and not the rule, during all of the losing years, often leads one back to the same truth: It’s the person he is that enabled the Nationals to build around his talent.

“I think that’s where he fought the label,” Desmond said. “He was part of [the team’s improvement every year]. It wasn’t like he was just staying idle. He continued to get better, the team continued to get better. I think if he would’ve not panned out, everything might have gone in a different direction.”

The 2012 Nationals are a lot of things, and they get contributions from all of their parts, but in many ways they are a team made in Zimmerman’s image. They’ve taken their success in stride, with quiet — and sometimes not-so-quiet — confidence.

“There are losing players, even with good statistics, and there are winning players even with good or bad statistics,” Rizzo said. “And Zim has been a winner since we signed him. He’s shown a steady professionalism each and every year. A guy who could’ve really been a malcontent and never let it affect him. He’s been a dream.”

The Nationals will open the playoffs Sunday, either in St. Louis or Atlanta. Zimmerman, who quipped when the Nationals clinched a playoff spot that it was the first time he’d won anything since “friggin’ Little League,” will finally be on the game’s biggest stage.

The advice from others is to savor it because “it’s much more difficult to accept mediocrity once you’re at the pinnacle,” Rizzo said. “And that’s something we have to, as an organization, really guard against.”

“You never know when the next time’s going to be,” said New York Mets third baseman David Wright, who grew up with Zimmerman in Virginia Beach. “It’s been nine years for me, and I’ve been to the playoffs once.”

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