When the referees signaled that Ryan Zimmerman's two-shot shot to his 11th career walk-off homer, rather than just playing a double, Juan Soto ran to the field chasing the veteran  Washington State National, longest-serving, waved him back and yelled "away" in a rare emotion. Manager Dave Martinez also shouted, knowing that if Soto touched him, Zimmerman would fail and the Nationals' 8-7 victory against the Phillies would not succeed. Soto looked back at the shelter and noticed that all his teammates were still there.
"Too much," he later said with a smile, describing his excitement. "It was too much."
But for a team that stifled so long this season and crouched below expectations, joy was a rarity. For a team that just two days before has sold two key players in an unofficial sign of surrender, a team that suggests the math ̵
"He will do much more," Zimmerman said. "I think that shows you what kind of person and player he is capable of."
The whole thing was unlikely. The day started with four tedious innings by Stephen Strasburg, who allowed five runs on seven hits on his first start since July 20, the second time since June 8. His speed was not as high as normal – 93 to 95 mph, not 95 to 97 – and crashed as his pitch rose. Normally these things indicate an injury to Strasbourg. This time, he and his manager said, "I do not know."
"I do not know if it's rust," said Strasburg. "I think it's just stamina, hopefully that's it."
Even as Strasburg fought, the Nationals stayed close together. When the Phillies took the lead in the third round, the Nationals used a RBI double by Bryce Harper and RBI singles from Zimmerman and Matt Wieters to tie them. When the Phillies made a 5: 4 lead in the fourth, Harper drove into Trea Turner to tie the game in the bottom of the inning.
Fireballing Seranthony Dominguez pulled Harper and Anthony Rendon out of the tournament ninth. Then Soto fell into the kind of two-stroke count that becomes crippling against someone who whirls so hard. He botched the places. Then he switched one on and slipped him into the right-hand field line for a double, giving Zimmerman a chance – a chance he considered pressure-free.
"He should get me out," Zimmerman said, citing the rights statistics and wicked, sinking stuff. With no expectations (if only in thought), Zimmerman hit the middle with a high flyball, one that seemed to break through the fence, but bounced ambiguously enough that the referees initially controlled him as double. Martinez had decided to challenge, no matter what his video team had said, making such a simple decision that when he went to Gary Cederstrom, he joked, "Are you sure?"
He was sure, and he was right: Video Review clearly showed that the ball was a homerun. Soto – who had been jogging home for a long time with the bandwagon – charged Zimmerman with unbridled and uninformed joy. Had he hugged him, the whole thing would have been controversial.
"That would have been terrible," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, like so many other veterans on this team, felt the pressure of the season. He knows what should happen and watches things fall apart. He was never one who became too high or too low, the consummate professional, with the experience of waving over fatigued newcomers when the moment demands. Even with the victory, the National Socialists remained in the National League East 7 1 / 2 games. They are 4½ games back from the Phillies, though. Their chances of a playoff are bleak, and a blow – even one that moves Zimmerman two behind Jim Thome, the ever-departed homerun leader – does not change their sometimes oppressive reality.
But Soto and Stevenson and the swirl of younger helpers on this team do not feel the same. And frankly, the sell-out would have increased the pressure of these veterans. Now that their season is declared dead, a rally would exceed expectations. The pressure, as with Dominguez, could at least partially lie on the teams ahead of them.
And this team – which is here because it took setbacks way too often and too many were useless – was not supposed to roll this year. Maybe Grit will only grow out of disappointment. Maybe the Nationals have experienced too much disappointment that the ridge is important. Maybe, if not this year, it still does.
"[Zimmerman] always competes and never gives up, that's what I probably love about him, and I'm here with him," Soto said. "If he never gives up, I do not."
Even the Nationals, as little as it matters. But a few moments of joy are better than nothing. And the team's first series victory in three weeks is better than the alternative.