HOUSTON - JULY 19: Pitcher Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Washington Nationals throws against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Minute Maid Park on July 19, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
With a mix of anger and disappointment in his voice, Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson spoke to the media after a 7-6 road loss to the Houston Astros about a 2-2 slider to Clint Barmes in the fourth inning that Nats' right-hander Jordan Zimmermann had left up in the zone. First base was open after the Nats' 25-year-old '07 2nd Round pick had given up a one-out single by Carlos Lee and a double by Astros' infielder Chris Johnson. "The thing that bothered me the most that whole ballgame," Johnson explained, "I'm not one, over my whole career with good young pitchers, good arms, and I have a couple guys in scoring position and I've got a base open, if he gets ahead of the guy, I don't expect him to make bad pitches.
"I expect that the hitter's got to hit a pitch off the plate and a nasty pitch and [Zimmermann] hung a slider right down the middle, it was flat, and drove in a run and then the squeeze [he] didn't cover first." Zimmermann was coming off a nine-day rest following the All-Star Break as the Nats tried to figure out just how they'd handle the right-hander as he approached the innings limit imposed on him in his first full year back following Tommy John surgery. It wasn't just that one slider that got away from him. "I just didn't have a good feel for much of anything," the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick said after the game, "My slider was pretty terrible tonight and I had a rough time locating the fastball and when you have nights like that you're going to get hit around."
In the at bat after Barmes' run-scoring hit in the fourth, Astros' catcher Humberto Quintero bunted with one down and runners on first and third, getting the run in easily and beating Zimmermann to first base for an RBI bunt single. More than the momentary lapse of concentration on the bunt it was the pitch to Barmes that bothered the Nats' skipper. "Those things upset me," the Nats' Skipper said, "I thought he battled and maybe he didn't have his best stuff, but the one thing, when you've got two strikes on a hitter, basically you just don't give him a cookie. There's a lot of times during the course of a year where I'll have situations in the middle of the lineup where I definitely don't want to give in and give a really good hitter a pitch to hit."
"Any other situation, with the catcher coming up," Johnson continued, "the 7th hole hitter hitting .250, if he gets ahead of him, I'm willing to make a good pitch and get him out and if he doesn't I'll walk him and try for the double play, but then you have to give in to the hitter and he needs to learn how to do that." Zimmermann, though disappointed he hadn't been able to get a win when his team scored six runs, said he had to get past it. "I've got to just get my work in the next four or five days," Zimmermann told reporters, "and be ready to go next time I step on the mound."
Zimmermann wouldn't pitch again for six days when he have up eight hits, two home runs and six runs total in an 11-2 loss to the Florida Marlins. Though he'd pitched on longer-than-usual rest in each of his first two starts coming out of the All-Star Break, (once because of the Break and once because of a day off after a road trip) the Nationals had decided before then that he would pitch on regular rest for the remainder of his available innings.
Going into the All-Star Break, Davey Johnson had talked to reporters about the Nats' plans for Zimmermann in the second half of the season, expressing the feeling that he wasn't sure he was happy about what he'd been told. "[Pitching coach Steve] McCatty's got a plan for [Zimmermann]," Johnson said, "to kind of stretch him out that will be good for him, and not as bad for the team, trying to get him at least to where we can expand the roster.
"I've heard the plan and I'm not that comfortable with it," Johnson said at the time, "so we'll have the break to discuss that formula. I'm not quite set on how that goes down. I'll probably need some medical opinions and all this other stuff." Asked what in particular made him uncomfortable, the Nats' Manager explained, "If there's off days and I don't need another starter, then I can kinda understand, but if I've got to piece another starter in there to push him back further to get him to the expanded roster, I haven't looked at that, but that would be an issue with me."
"He's obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter," Johnson said. "So, if we're trying to win... I mean, but don't get me started on that whole scenario, but you can figure it out. I don't know if this is a medical decision. That he needs extra rest, or if we're going to shut him down at 160.0 innings, is it better to be regular and then shut [down]? So, there's all kinds of things, thought processes that [go] into it. It's probably made above me by smart doctors, but from a baseball standpoint, I want to win. I'm thinking of winning."
"You do everything that you can for the individual, but not so much that it hurts the team. So, I mean, we haven't had all those discussions, but I know that that's what they think is best for [Zimmermann], but I haven't put my two cents in yet." Before the Nationals returned from the All-Star Break they announced their decision for how they'd deal with Zimmermann's approaching limits.
"Zimmermann will continue to go on his regular rotation until he reaches 160 innings, according to manager Davey Johnson," MLB.com's Bill Ladson wrote in mid-July in an article entitled, "Zimmermann to remain on regular rotation." Johnson was quoted in the article saying, "'I wasn't sure that was the best way to finish out this year. I think regular work, regular side throwing until he runs out of innings, and then let him rest.'" Pitching on regular rest after the first two starts in which he gave up 15 hits and 12 ER in 11.2 IP, Zimmermann gave up 37 hits and 11 earned runs in his last six starts and 34.2 IP, over which he walked 10 (2.59 BB/9) and struck out 32 (8.31 K/9). Zimmermann was shut down for the season after his August 28th start against Cincinatti.
Looking back on his season, the right-hander said that though it was tough to end his own season before the Nationals were done, "You can look at it both ways," Zimmermann said, "Yeah, of course I wanted to pitch the whole season and maybe skipping a start here and there during the season I could've been able to pitch a whole season, but we tried that a couple times, and it seemed like every time I either skipped a start or had a longer rest I didn't pitch very well, so I think they wanted to keep me on a five-day rotation, and when I was able to pitch every fifth day I seemed to do a lot better."
Having gotten through the first full-season back, Zimmermann, who got a foundation of innings in late in 2010 to set himself up for a full Spring Training to prepare for the 2011 season, is set to pitch without limits in 2012. "I would say next year he's capable of going 120 pitches and 200.0 innings," Davey Johnson told reporters at one point this season, looking forward to a time that he could run the right-hander out there with no restrictions, but as for what he'd accomplished in 2011, Johnson said, "You couldn't ask for anything more after what he's went through the last year." Stephen Strasburg, who's followed the same program more or less thus far will be on the same innings-limit next season, and the Nationals plan to shut him down when he reaches whatever total he's allotted.
"I'm going with the medical experts," the 68-year-old skipper said when he was asked about having to finish the season without Strasburg, "Whatever they think is the best thing to do." In spite of how impressed he was with the right-hander's surgically-repaired elbow, the manager will stick to the plan. "He's over the special treatment," Johnson said referring to the strict pitch counts Strasburg worked under as he rehabbed, "Now I would handle him just like any other pitcher on my staff and when we feel like the arm has had enough we'll shut him down, just like with [Zimmermann]."