Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ryan Zimmerman is mobbed at the plate following his game-winning homer.
And when Stephen Strasburg arrived on the scene with a flourish last month and suddenly became the most-recognizable face on the Nationals' roster, Zimmerman perhaps thought his reign was over and the wealth could finally be spread among other worthy candidates inside the Washington clubhouse.
Don't fool yourself. Ryan Zimmerman still is -- and will remain -- the Face of the Franchise. If you needed to be reminded of that, just consider the events of the last 72 hours.
It began Sunday afternoon when, with his team down eight runs, Zimmerman ignited a near-comeback. He crushed a three-run homer, added an RBI single and another base hit over the final four innings. And it continued tonight, when he reached base four times, homered in the fourth, doubled in the sixth and then sealed a 6-5 victory with a game-ending homer off Luke Gregerson.
When it comes to crunch time, Zimmerman remains the guy you want at the plate.
"Everybody knows Zim is one of the best players in baseball," Livan Hernandez said. "We expect a lot from Zim, and this is what he does. He hits home runs and makes good plays. He's the best third baseman in the league. ... It's something we see every day."
Oh, did we mention this all happened after Zimmerman was named one of the five players up for consideration as the "Final Man" on the National League's All-Star roster? You think a 6-for-9, three-homer, six-RBI hot streak might help convince fans around the country this guy deserves a round-trip ticket to Anaheim?
How 'bout it, Zim: Have you been motivated by the prospect of a spot in the All-Star Game?
"Oh, yeah. I was just waiting for it to be announced so I could get hot," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"No, I've been working hard the last week or so," he continued. "I've been struggling the last three weeks, four weeks, however many weeks it is. It's frustrating. Nobody wants to do that. But I've been working with Rick [Eckstein] a little bit. It's finally getting back to where I want it to be."
Zimmerman has his moments of humility, and it's what helps make him such an easy guy to root for. But make no mistake: He wants to go to the All-Star Game. He got his first taste of the spotlight last season, and he wants to become a regular participant.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think everyone's goal is to be an All-Star, win awards. You know, we all want to win team stuff. We all want to go to the playoffs. We want to have a chance to win the World Series. But everyone works hard in this game to be good. To get honored for it and to get rewarded for it is special."
Zimmerman received plenty of honors at the end of last season. He won the Gold Glove Award, voted on by fellow players. He won the Silver Slugger Award, handed out to the best offensive player at every position. That right there solidified his stature as the best all-around third baseman in the NL, probably the second-best in baseball to Alex Rodriguez.
When All-Star rosters were announced Sunday, Zimmerman probably didn't deserve to be picked ahead of either David Wright or Scott Rolen. Each had a fantastic first half to the season, and Zim had been slumping for several weeks.
But when October rolls around, who doesn't expect this guy to stand right alongside (if not above) every other player at his position?
"Zim's just a baseball player," Jim Riggleman said, using the best compliment he can come up with. "He's clutch, but he's a good hitter. He's got power. He can field. He can do it all. He just put it all on display tonight. Great performance."
There's another reason Zimmerman remains the preeminent figure inside the Nationals' clubhouse. He is the leader of this team.
It may not show in typical fashion. Zim isn't very vocal. He's not going to put on a public rally-the-troops display in the clubhouse. But he leads by example. He plays the game hard. He runs out every play. He shows up to work early and leaves late. He comes ready to play every single day and never asks for a day off. He conducts himself in a professional manner and never does anything to embarrass himself. He devotes much of his free time to worthy causes, especially the ziMS Foundation he created to raise awareness of the multiple sclerosis that has afflicted his mother.
And he spreads the wealth. Following Sunday's game, Zim invited everyone on the Nats roster to join him on a boat he chartered for an Independence Day get-together on the Potomac. A large group of Nationals players watched the fireworks display from the best seat in the house, all of it paid for by their star third baseman.
Leadership. Hustle. A good work ethic. A sense of community. Oh yeah, and some pretty impressive skills on the baseball field (especially when the game's on the line).
That's why Ryan Zimmerman has been, and will continue to be, the Face of the Franchise in NatsTown.