A Pair of World Series Homers Puts the Nationals on the Right Track

In 1911, the city of Houston finished construction on a $5 million train station that overshot its original budget by $4 million. The city had been so jacked up to build this thing that they had swatted the home of a former Houston mayor and a prominent synagogue out of the way to get it up.

When people had grown bored and disgusted by trains in the mid-70s, Union Station was abandoned for a shiny new Amtrak facility. But instead of knocking it down or blowing it up, as the city had done with the buildings that had been in Union Station’s way initially, it was granted immortality by the National Park Service on the National Register of Historic Places.

When the Astros started muttering about getting a new stadium in 1995, and were actually threatening to leave Houston and become the new Washington franchise against which they are currently playing in the World Series, it was eventually determined that Union Station would make the perfect starting point for construction of their new facility.

Given the historic choo-choo depot that now serves as its main concourse, it makes sense that Minute Maid Park would incorporate a train into the ballpark’s home run celebrations. The train is piloted at 2.5 mph but still has an emergency brake, just in case of a horrifying accident occurring at a speed that many doctors consider an ideal pace for walking.

Juan Soto, who you may have heard is only 20 years old and already has three home runs in the postseason, went up to meet that train last night, bashing a home run to a part of Minute Maid Park where baseballs aren’t supposed to go. In the top of the fourth inning, he sent a Gerrit Cole fastball onto the unlit track of the silent Astros train, and the two inanimate objects became a pair of unwitting companions for the remainder of the game.

It was a pure, glorious moment for a sport that had been mired all day in important, unavoidable conversations regarding the hateful and idiotic rhetoric of an Astros assistant GM. For the several seconds it took for Soto’s home run to reach the train tracks, all we could do was marvel at his skill, at his youth, and at the fact that he’s a member of the Nationals, a franchise that has been trying to get to this moment since 2012.

In fact, it was earlier in the game that the Nationals had witnessed their first ever World Series home run, and it borders on cliche that it was hit by 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman.

Zimmerman knows how to hit a postseason home run. He’s a tenured professor in home run-hitting, and in the scattershot of Nationals playoff appearances since 2012, he’s knocked a few out. His journey to cutting the Astros’ early 2-0 lead in half with a solo shot goes back seven years, to when he’d already been on the Washington roster for seven years.

Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche went back-to-back off Lance Lynn to give the Nationals a much-needed power surge in Game 2 of the 2012 NLDS. Unfortunately, they were down 7-1 at the time and would go on to lose by eight runs. Zimmerman didn’t muscle another home run out until Game 5, when he would once again go back-to-back in run-scoring plays, following a Bryce Harper RBI triple with a two-run jack to give the Nationals an early 3-0 lead in a game they wound up losing 9-7.

Two years later, when the Nationals returned to the postseason, Zimmerman was naturally still with them, but by this point, his body had been set upon by the sport of baseball: It had chewed on his hamstring and bludgeoned his shoulder to the point that they would shift the third baseman and outfielder over to the NL’s DH spot, first base, when the season was over.

But during the NLDS, Zimmerman was still called upon to swing a bat as a pinch hitter, despite being “hurt enough not to play,” as he would say later. After all, swinging a bat requires things like muscles and tendons, and Zimmerman’s weren’t in great shape: dashing from third to home on a play near the end of the season had been enough to keep him out of the lineup for three days.

Fortunately for Washington, he was playing in the bottom of the eighth of Game 2 in 2014 against the Cubs. Bryce Harper had just tied the game at 3-3 with a two-run bomb and it was Zimmerman’s job to win it. His three-run tater gave the Nationals a 6-3 lead that they used to beat the Cubs, and for the first time in Nationals history, Zimmerman had homered in a postseason game that his team would actually win.

In a tied Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS, the Dodgers watched Julio Urías give up a run and the lead, as well as a couple of base runners, before yanking him so Zimmerman would have to face a fresh Pedro Báez. Zimmerman didn’t seem to mind, pounding a three-run blast on the second pitch of the at-bat. It was the last time anybody scored in that game and the Nationals won 6-1.

Even though each of the Nationals’ postseason campaigns have ended the same way, each of Zimmerman’s postseason homers have shown an evolution of sorts, going from garbage time RBIs, to game-winning blasts, to last night, when he fired the inaugural shot of Nationals’ World Series run-scoring. In baseball, the stories don’t always present themselves as clearly as we think, and we have to look back, sift through some box scores, find a few quotes, and decide that, yes, here is the beginning, middle, and end. It’s a need we have to box every part of this sport into a three-act structure, despite so much of it being so dumb and so meaningless.

But for Zimmerman to hit the first home run of the series for the Nationals, and for Soto to follow him with a bomb on the train tracks, gives us such a clear glimpse of what it took for Washington to get here and of what lies ahead for a franchise with a 20-year-old superstar. They’re still not World Series champions, but after Game 1, they appear to be on right track.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Brian Reinhartmember
4 years ago

Something to watch in games 3-4-5: If I’m counting correctly, Zimmerman has 11 career walk-off home runs. The record is 13 (Thome had all 13 in the regular season; Mantle had 12 plus one in the playoffs; Big Papi had 11 plus two in the playoffs).