In Nationals’ clubhouse, a different vibe

Beanballs,Sports,Brian McNally

Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t help himself. He broke the fourth wall. For years the Nats’ star third baseman has cultivated a public image he himself describes as “boring”. It’s not that he doesn’t have anything insightful to say to reporters. Zimmerman does and often will. But there’s no question he dims a vibrant personality as a media strategy. It was probably a smart move. For six years, as a young player in his early-to-mid 20s, he was the go-to stop for every reporter looking for answers about why his franchise stunk. Nothing but good times there!

But things have changed. As Zimmerman spoke to a handful of reporters following Friday’s 10-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, the TV mounted on a support beam a few feet away from his locker was showing the Phillies-Braves game. That alone was different. In past years as the calendar flipped to September Nats players were as likely to watch college football or the NFL as another baseball game after their own work was finished. But in a pennant race nothing is more important.

“It’s way more fun than anything I’ve done in the past, but every game counts now,” Zimmerman said. “I think every game we win, we control our own destiny pretty much. If we play the game we’ve been playing all year then, you know, it’s up to us.”

So when John Mayberry smacked a three-run home run in the 10th inning to give Philadelphia an 8-5 lead over the second-place Braves late Friday night, two or three remaining players milling about Washington’s big oval clubhouse gave a shout. One player’s young son even joined the chorus with a sing-song “Got him!” directed at the unfortunate Atlanta reliever who gave up the homer. It was a brief outburst, but Zimmerman stumbled over an answer as a wide smile broke across his face. Finally, at long last, this really was fun.

It was fun watching lefty Gio Gonzalez spin a complete-game shutout. It was fun hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning to complete the blowout. It was fun watching his teammates float one RBI single after another into the outfield to knock Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright from the game just 2 2/3 innings into it. And it was fun hearing the crowd – his crowd – chant “Gio!” “Gio!” over and over in the eighth and ninth innings. There have been too many nights late in a season where the opponent’s fans have been the ones showering their team with cheers at Nationals Park. Had he ever heard a teammate serenaded like that?

“In other stadiums when I’m on the road,” Zimmerman cracked. “But that’s great, I think – what’s been happening this year. 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.”

It’s still not a team with much experience so they have kept up a pretty consistent façade even after big wins, even after they go up 6 ½ games with 31 to play. A quick smile, a handshake and on to the next one. It’s been their mantra all season, one stoked by veterans like Jayson Werth, Chad Tracy and Mark DeRosa, who have at least been through this before. Tracy has told his teammates about his 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks, who led the NL West by 4 ½ games on Aug. 29. In less than two weeks they were 4 ½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went nuts with 12 wins in their next 13 games. They never looked back. Lessons like that help. And they can turn any player, even one as articulate as Zimmerman, into a Yogi Berra acolyte.

“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.”

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