Davey Johnson pulled Jordan Zimmermann after six innings in last night's win over the Houston Astros. The Washington Nationals' 26-year-old right-hander was dominating the Astros up to that point, shutting them out, striking out 11 and holding opposing hitters to just three hits on the night. "A dominant game. That's him," the Nats' skipper told reporters after the game. "Very dominant. Overpowered them." Though the manager had said after Zimmermann's previous outing, a less-than-stellar five-inning, 95-pitch outing at home against Miami, that there were no signs of the shoulder issue which had cropped up as the pitcher warmed before previous starts, he told reporters after taking the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick out early last night after just 6.0 innings and 85 pitches that he did so in part with the pitcher's health in mind. "With the little irritation he had a couple of starts ago," Johnson said, "I'm just going to be real cautious with him."
Last night's performance by Zimmermann was drastically different than the Wisconsin native's previous outing in Houston's Minute Maid Park following the All-Star Break in July of 2011. That night, the right-hander, coming off an extended rest after the break in his first full-year back from Tommy John surgery, was lit up for six runs on seven hits in 5.0 IP over which he threw 86 pitches. Johnson was unhappy with that outing, and one sixth-inning at bat in particular in which Zimmermann had thrown a 2-2 "cookie" of a slider to the Astros' seven-hole hitter Clint Barmes with first base open and the catcher and opposing pitcher due up. Barmes doubled in two runs and opened the floodgates. A 2-2 tie was quickly a 6-2 Astros' lead in a game the Nationals lost 7-6. Zimmermann, for his part, told reporters after that game that he felt just didn't have it.
"I just didn't have a good feel for much of anything," Zimmermann told MASN's Debbi Taylor, "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." It was during this period that the Nationals were experimenting with ways to stretch Zimmermann out by giving him extra rest since he was on an innings limit. In hindsight, both the pitcher and the Nats' GM Mike Rizzo have said the experiments and tinkering didn't work. The Nats' GM, in fact, cited Zimmermann's stretch of post-ASG starts as part of the reason they decided against any using any "gimmicks" as the general manager has referred to them, to stretch Stephen Strasburg's 2012 campaign out. There won't be any skipping starts, shutting him down and bringing him back or extra rest between outings for Strasburg. "'We tried something similar with Zimmermann last year,'" the Nationals' general manager told ESPN.com's Pedro Gomez recently, "and [Zimmermann] just could not get going again. We won't make the same mistake."
"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," Zimmermann explained after he was shut down last year, "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." Zimmermann had one more long break before a rough start against the Marlins, then finished out the year pitching on regular rest and posted a 2.86 ERA with 10 walks (2.60 BB/9) and 32 Ks (8.31 K/9) in his final six starts and 34.2 IP.
"I loved him last year," Davey Johnson said after last night's dominant performance against the Astros "And he was my best pitcher when we shut him down in September. No question about that. And he's picked up and even run it up a notch. But he still has a little discomfort getting loose, so I'm going to be real cautious with him."
The Nationals need to be cautious (and have been) with all of their starters going forward, considering where things appear headed. As important a part of the rotation as Zimmermann is now, he'll be even more important to Washington if they're able to make a run at their first post-season berth since all signs point to the Nationals sticking to their plan of eventually shutting Stephen Strasburg down. Zimmermann, in spite of some of the recent chatter about him deserving consideration for post season awards, told reporters after last night's start that he's not focused on that sort of recognition.
"'I just want to finish strong and not fall off toward the end,'" the right-hander told MLB.com's Adam Berry, "'and I guess whatever awards are out there, hopefully I get mentioned in some of them. But the main goal right now is to make the playoffs.'"
After last night's start, Zimmermann is (9-6) with the NL's second-lowest and MLB's third-lowest ERA (2.35), a 3.26 FIP, 25 walks (1.55 BB/9) and 110 Ks (6.81 K/9) in 23 games and 145.1. IP. "Zimmermann has been probably consistently as good as anyone in the league, no question about it," Davey Johnson said when asked last night if the starter should be considered for post season recognition, though he did cite R.A. Dickey as a pitcher that might have a claim to the Cy Young award this year. But those things are decided after the season. Let's see what Zimmermann can do in the first meaningful September games of his career first.