HOUSTON — Ryan Zimmerman was the first player the Washington Nationals selected in the amateur draft after the franchise moved from Montreal.
An All-American third baseman from the University of Virginia, Zimmerman was the fourth overall pick and made his major league debut on Sept. 1 that season.
Juan Soto was a 6-year-old in the Dominican Republic at the time, too young to get in the baseball games in his Santo Domingo neighborhood against the bigger kids. That would change soon enough.
On Tuesday night, when the Nationals played the first World Series game in their history, the player who defined their past and the one who will mark their future came together for a 5-4 victory against the Houston Astros.
Zimmerman got the Nationals started with a home run off Astros ace Gerrit Cole in the second inning. Then Soto homered in the fourth inning before doubling in two more runs in the fifth.
“I’ll he honest with you, my eyes got a little watery,” said Nationals manager Dave Martinez about watching Zimmerman homer in his first Series at-bat after 15 seasons and 1,689 games with the team. “He waited a long time to be in this position.”
Game 2 is at 8:08 p.m. on Wednesday. Stephen Strasburg starts for Washington against Justin Verlander in what is now a crucial game for the Astros.
The Nationals are 9-2 in the postseason with seven straight victories and have won 17 of 19 going back to the regular season. There is something to be said for momentum.
Cole had not lost a game or given up five or more runs since April 22. He managed to go seven innings, but allowed all five of Washington’s runs on eight hits.
The righthander had started three previous games this postseason and given up one run over 22 2/3 innings.
“He’s been so good for so long that there builds this thought of invincibility and that it’s impossible to beat him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “So when it happens it is a surprise to all of us. “Which is why I give credit to the Nats. They came in and put really good at-bats up.”
One of the best was the leadoff walk No. 8 hitter Kurt Suzuki drew to start the fifth inning in a 2-2 game. Victor Robles followed with a single.
Adam Eaton’s single scored Suzuki. Soto then lined a full-count slider off the Fenway Park-like scoreboard in left field for his double. Soto’s home run was a 417-foot shot, also to left field, off a 99-mile-per-hour fastball from Cole.
Soto is the fourth-youngest player to homer in the World Series, following Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera, and Mickey Mantle.
“Last couple of days we’ve been working on it, staying that way,” Soto said. “Hit the ball the other way. Try to hit the ball as deep as I can.”
Soto’s lefthanded power and youthful energy is strikingly similar to what Rafael Devers did for the Red Sox this season.
Devers had a .916 OPS, 90 extra-base hits, and 115 RBI. Soto had a .949 OPS, 71 extra-base hits, and 110 RBIs. Devers turns 23 on Thursday and Soto turns 21 on Friday.
“You can always tell the young guys that come up that can slow the game down,” Zimmerman said. “I always say that, and everyone kind of says, ‘What does that mean?’ It means at any moment, at any time you can take a deep breath and you don’t try to do too much and you just stay within yourself.
“It sounds easy to do, but it’s hard to do even in the regular season for a 20-21-year-old.”
With his team up, 5-2, and Minute Maid Park quiet, Martinez found the right combination to hold on.
After Max Scherzer persevered through five innings and 112 pitches, Game 3 starter Patrick Corbin gave the Nationals an inning. That the Nationals had six days off after winning the National League pennant made that an easier decision.
“For me it’s about playing one game,” Martinez said. “And that’s what we focus on, is just worry about the game at hand and then go from there.”
Tanner Rainey allowed a home run by George Springer in the seventh inning and Daniel Hudson allowed another run in the eighth.
But Sean Doolittle retired Michael Brantley to strand a runner at second in the eighth then sat down the side in order in the ninth for the save.
At worst, the Nationals will go home with the Series tied and three games at their park. After a 19-31 start, that’s better than ever could have hoped. Zimmerman has been waiting for it.
“It’s been fun to grow with the fans, with the community, with the city, to watch them become baseball fans, to watch the neighborhood around the ballpark grow up,” he said. “I’m sure they’re as excited, probably more excited than we are about the kind of ride we’ve been on.”