WASHINGTON — Ryan Zimmerman was the first player ever drafted by the Washington Nationals, with the fourth overall choice in 2005. He had starred at the University of Virginia, but this was more than a hometown selection. It was a sound baseball pick that gave the team its first homegrown star.
“He’s been here the whole time,” said Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ star right-hander. “He’s given everything to this organization, from beginning to end, staying through the bad times and the good times.”
Zimmerman made his debut at age 20, in a game that included Julio Franco, who is now 61 years old, and John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, who are now in the Hall of Fame. He hit his first career homer at Shea Stadium, and his second at R.F.K. Stadium. None of his first seven Nationals teams finished with a winning record, a stretch of futility that ended with the first of their four National League East titles in 2012.
At 35, Zimmerman is coming to the end of his $135 million contract and wants to keep playing. But he often struggles with injuries and knows nothing is certain. On the field in Los Angeles last weekend, during a tense moment in his team’s N.L. division series against the Dodgers, he turned to the first base umpire and said, “Whenever I’m done, this is what I’m going to miss.”
The occasion then was a bullpen appearance by Scherzer, the snarling ace who struck out the side in relief to help send the series to Nationals Park tied, one-all. Two games later, it heads back to Dodger Stadium tied again, largely because of Scherzer and Zimmerman.
Scherzer throttled the Dodgers for seven steely innings on Monday, and Zimmerman broke the game open with a three-run homer to center field in the fifth. The Nationals avoided elimination with a 6-1 victory, setting up a matchup of aces in Game 5.
“Walker Buehler versus Stephen Strasburg with Kershaw probably available in the pen — I mean, this is why you play the game,” Zimmerman said. “This is what we live for.”
The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw will indeed be available in relief, but Scherzer will not. He fired 109 pitched on just two days of rest in Game 4, holding the Dodgers to four hits and a run with seven strikeouts. He could feel his arm angle dropping from fatigue in the seventh, he said, and his next pitch will be in the N.L. Championship Series, if the Nationals survive.
“My arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said. “That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. I can’t imagine any scenario where I’m pitching.”
Strasburg stymied the Dodgers in Game 2, and he has given up one earned run in nine innings this postseason, with no walks and 14 strikeouts. But Buehler has also been an October stalwart; in his last two postseason appearances, including Game 3 of last year’s World Series, he has thrown 13 shutout innings and allowed just three hits.
“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in playoff baseball is that it’s really fun,” Buehler said. “The pressure and things like that, if you spin it in your head the right way, it can make it more fun.”
Facing Scherzer could not have been much fun for the Dodgers, who started two rookie left-handed hitters — Matt Beaty and Gavin Lux — to try to get a matchup advantage. No such luck: Both came up in the second and fourth innings and could not advance a runner from second. Lux ended the fourth with a swinging third strike, chasing a fastball well above the zone.
Scherzer was only getting stronger. He had given up a homer to Justin Turner in the first inning — a long one, over the left field bullpen — but struck out the side in the fifth. By then the Dodgers were well into their bullpen, and the Nationals’ offense took advantage.
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts was destined to make this a bullpen game because starter Rich Hill had been limited by recent injuries. That style can work when relievers are at their best, flummoxing lineups with different angles and pitches. The problem comes when one pitcher has an off night and blows up the plan.
So it was with Julio Urias on Monday. He gave up singles to three of his five hitters, with Anthony Rendon’s breaking a 1-1 tie. Zimmerman followed with his blast off Pedro Baez, his first home run of the postseason and just his seventh of the season.
“In those moments, I take a look real quick at the dugout,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s what fires me up, is the guys, because they were battling hard. And when those big moments come, you can see it in their faces. It’s huge.”
Scherzer carried the lead through the seventh, and Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson collected the last six outs. There would be at least one more game for the Nationals and for Zimmerman, another chance to finally advance to the N.L.C.S.
“We’re so far past that now,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s kind of made me who I am. A lot of these guys didn’t even ever go through that kind of stuff. So I think it’s a good thing — we’ve moved on to where we’re expected to make the playoffs every year, we’re expected to compete.”
For the Nationals, playoff competition has always ended early and painfully. Zimmerman and Scherzer earned the chance for Strasburg to change that on Wednesday.
“Especially when you’ve played a little bit longer, you start to realize how hard it is to get there,” Strasburg said. “All you can really do is just give it everything you have.”