No players for the home team wore No. 11. As of 3:46 p.m. Saturday, no National will again.
To honor the player who once did, who was the first draft pick in team history, played here for 16 seasons and won a World Series in 2019, Nationals Park became the museum of modern D.C. baseball. Ian Desmond, Gio Gonzalez and Jayson Werth were introduced to some of the biggest cheers of an otherwise cheerless year for Washington. They were joined by Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche, Ted and Mark Lerner, then a video tribute that included Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper and Dusty Baker, among others — including Anthony S. Fauci.
A capacity crowd of 42,730 took in the perfect afternoon, the sky light blue and marked by just a few small clouds. And at the eye of its attention was a sniffling 37-year-old, who retired this past winter and traded cleats for dress shoes.
“For Ryan, you’d do anything,” Werth said of Ryan Zimmerman, the answer to each trivia question above. Werth even tamed his long blond hair into a ponytail and tucked it beneath a hat. Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, typically wears a suit or sport coat twice a season, on Opening Day and for the early rounds of the draft. But Saturday, Rizzo added a third, then followed Desmond and Werth in honoring Zimmerman at a podium between the mound and second base.
The last time the Nationals truly celebrated was in that exact spot, when they stood on a portable stage in October 2019, shoulder to relaxed shoulder and held the National League Championship Series trophy in front of an adoring city. Almost three years later, they are 23-46, a season-worst 23 games below .500. The team was leveled in July, before the final months of Zimmerman’s career, and is stumbling through the first full year of a rebuild. Saturday’s loss was its eighth in a row.
“I’m sure the fans are going to start coming more and more as the weather starts heating up and we get back to our winning ways,” Gray said. “So I’m looking forward to bigger crowds like that this year and years to come.”
On one hand, Zimmerman and former teammates were a reminder of how good the Nationals were for the better part of a decade, a stretch that finished with Washington’s first MLB title in 95 years. But on the other, they provided such a sharp contrast to the current on-field product, a club will almost certainly sell again this summer.
Zimmerman knows about teams rising, little by little, from last place to annual contention. He once lived every step of that process.
“If you don’t ever want this to happen, root for the Dodgers,” Zimmerman said, pairing dry wit with a laugh, when asked about his message to frustrated fans. He has an official title now, as a senior adviser for baseball and business operations. He has already been around the organization because of a five-year personal services contract.
“That’s my only advice, because they’re probably the only team that’s ever going to [avoid tear-downs],” Zimmerman continued, switching to his experience of playing for two 100-loss teams before the Nationals made their leap. “But other than that, I mean, it’s part of it. We had a decade where we were either in the playoffs or competing for the playoffs or at the trade deadline acquiring people. At some point, something’s got to give, and last year was that point.
“… I mean, that’s what you have to do. Nobody likes to lose. Fans don’t like to lose. Players don’t like to lose. [Manager Dave Martinez] doesn’t like to lose. … But it happens, it happens to every organization. I know this team doesn’t want it to happen for a long time. So I don’t think you’re looking at a long time of this.”
A few hours later, after Zimmerman gave a tear-filled speech — and after he threw out the first pitch to his dad, Keith — “this” continued with a tight defeat. Gray, one of the 12 players acquired at July’s deadline, traded zeros with Aaron Nola for six innings. The 24-year-old Gray loaded the bases in the first, stranded every runner and responded with the best start of his young career. He struck out four, walked three and limited the Phillies (36-31) to one hit, Didi Gregorius’s first-inning single.
And to cap his outing, throwing 16 more pitches than he ever had in the majors, Gray fielded the grounder, smacked his chest twice and flipped the ball to Josh Bell. He paused his walk to the dugout for a fist clench and scream, then disappeared through a loud ovation and into a line of high-fives. In the next inning, Yairo Muñoz put the Phillies ahead with a solo homer off Erasmo Ramírez. Then in the 10th, once Thomas had tied it with that single off Brad Hand, the Phillies went up on Rhys Hoskins’s RBI single and Seranthony Domínguez stranded Washington’s automatic runner in the bottom half.
So on a day for remembering the past, for toasting a player who was there at the bare beginning, that’s how the Nationals fell.