Jordan Zimmermann left his 17th start of 2012 with a 2-1 lead after six and a half innings, and after Roger Bernadina hit for the Nats' right-hander, singling and scoring to give Washington a 3-1 lead, the Nationals' 26-year-old right-hander was in line for his sixth win of the season, which would have left the '07 2nd Round pick (6-6) at the All-Star Break. Before an out was recorded in the eighth, however, normally reliable lefty Sean Burnett, Michael Gonzalez and catcher Jhonatan Solano had combined to give up the Nats' lead and leave Zimmermann with no decision in his final start of the first-half of the 2012 campaign. Zimmermann's final line: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K's, 95 pitches, 68 strikes, 7/6 GO/FO. "[Zimmermann] pitched a gem," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, "And it's hot out there and he was a jewel out there, a heck of a game. It's one of the few times the bullpen hasn't done a good job."
WIth Zimmermann close to 100 pitches on another oppressively hot day in the nation's capital, his manager said he didn't entertain any thoughts of sending the pitcher back out to the mound for the eighth. "No," Johnson said, "No possibility. I was going hitter-by-hitter [with Zimmermann] in the seventh. It was such a good game and it was so hot out there I wasn't going to give him any chance to lose it. That's why I had [Craig] Stammen warming up. But, what a great effort. It's just a shame we wasted it for him." It was the sixth no-decision of the season for the fourth-year pro. "I feel real bad on that one for [Zimmermann]," the Nats' skipper said, "His record is not indicative of what kind of first half he had. He's been outstanding. I just feel bad we didn't hold it for him."
Zimmermann, who's flown under the radar (outside the nation's capital at least) behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, finished the first half of the 2012 schedule with a (5-6) record, 2.61 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 22 walks and 74 K's in 110.1 IP. The 2.61 ERA is the Nationals' lowest amongst starters. His +1.7 fWAR makes him the third-most valuable starter behind Gio and Stras. His strikeout totals and K/9 (74 K's, 6.04 K/9 in 110.1 IP) might not be as impressive as Strasburg's (128 K's, 11.64 K/9 in 99.0) or Gonzalez's (118 K's, 10.45 K/9 in 101.2) so far this season, but that's in part by design. Zimmermann's 48.8% ground ball rate is the highest among the starters who've gone out for every turn in the rotation. (Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang actually have higher GB%'s, but in 12 starts for Det and four for Wang). As Zimmermann explained Sunday afternoon, the move away from strikeouts to looking for contact was a conscious decision.
"Like I said all year," Zimmermann said, "I'm trying to get some early contact and stay in the game as long as I can and if I can do that and give the team a chance to win I feel like I've done my job." The right-hander out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point explained late last year that he'd changed his mindset on the mound to focus more on pitching to contact after returning from Tommy John surgery. "I try to do that every time out," Zimmermann explained, "Just sometimes you have trouble locating the fastball, sometimes you command it a little bit better."
The decision was his own, however, not something forced on or suggested to him by the Nationals or pitching coach Steve McCatty, but the result of a realization. "[They] really didn't tell me to change anything," Zimmermann said, "I've just come to realize that if I keep trying to strike everyone out, my pitch count is going to get higher faster and I'm not going to be able to stay in the game as long. So, when I came back this year I told myself to just throw strikes, let them put it in play and be able to stay in the game a lot longer." Zimmermann's thrown more innings than any other Nats' starter this year and he's the only one to go at least six innings in each of his 2012 starts.
Zimmermann's 48.8% GB% is back around where he was in 2010 (48.9%) and up from last year's 39.4%, and his FB% (29.4%) is down significantly from last year's (41.9%). He's throwing the same pitches (though using less FB's - 59.0% down from 62.3% on his career and using his changeup slightly more often than in the past as he's said before he'd planned to) and he has the same velocity he's always had.
It was more of the same from the Nats' no.3 starter's final outing Sunday in the third of three games with the Rockies. Seven strong innings to set things up perfectly for the Nationals' bullpen. "I had good stuff today," Zimmermann said after the game. "Good fastball, good slider, could throw the curve in there when I needed to. Got some early contact, you know, I was able to go seven [innings]." Asked if it wore on him to continually pitch so well and have little to show for it (at least in terms of his the W/L record), Zimmermann said, "I try not to let it wear on me. Just take it one game at a time and try to do my job."
Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who caught Zimmermann in 2010 and 2011, said he was impressed with what he's seen from the pitcher so far in 2012. "He's great. He's another guy that came [back] from Tommy John surgery. They told me a lot of good things about him when he came to the organization, my first year. He was hurt and he was in rehab but all the coaches, Steve McCatty told me, 'We have a kid [who is] rehabbing that is going to be great,' and I'm going to like the way he pitches.
"And when he came [back] later that year, [McCatty] was right. The way he pitches, he's got a very explosive fastball, he's a guy that is around the plate, throws a lot of strikes and doesn't try to do too much. I think he's great, he's doing a great job for the Nationals and I think when you have Stephen, when you have Jordan, when you have [Edwin] Jackson, when you have Gio, all those guys in the starting rotation, that tells you the team is pretty good."
The usually reserved Zimmermann made headlines recently when he told reporters he didn't see much changing for Washington in the second half of the 2012 campaign. "'If they keep hitting the way they’ve been hitting,'" the right-hander told reporters including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, "'I don’t see why we can’t run away with this thing in the second half.'"
Zimmermann said much the same on Sunday. "We just want to keep playing the same way we're playing this first half. And if we can do that, we feel like that's going to put us in a pretty good situation towards the end of the year, and try to make a playoff run."
"Everyone's upbeat and excited with the first half we had," Zimmermann said, "and I think we have to try to take it over to the second half and keep it going."
With Stephen Strasburg (for as long as Davey Johnson has him available), Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler on the mound the Nationals head into the second half of 2012 with a realistic opportunity to compete for the first playoff appearance since baseball returned to the nation's capital in 2005.
Zimmermann will become an even more important part of the rotation if/when Strasburg's shut down as Zimmermann was last year in his own first full-year back following Tommy John. But for now he's right where D.C. GM Mike Rizzo imagined he would be when he suggested and argued for the Nats to draft Zimmermann in the second round in 2007.
Former Nats' GM Jim Bowden told the story of how Zimmermann was drafted on his MLB Network Radio show in the Spring of 2011. A difference of opinion existed in the Nationals' draft room, with one contingent convinced they were taking Zimmermann way too early, an "over-draft" as the former Nationals' executive described it in explaining one side of the argument. The competing side, led by Rizzo and current scouting director Kris Kline, eventually won out. "I kept looking at Mike Rizzo and Kris Kline," Bowden recalled, "and they kept looking at me going, 'The one thing we know is that [Zimmermann] is going to be in the rotation in the big leagues fast and he's going to be at least a three starter in the middle. He's gonna get there and he's gonna get there quick.'"
Six seasons later that's right where Jordan Zimmermann is...