A five-inning outing on August 4th at home against the Miami Marlins this past summer ended a season-long streak of twenty-one straight starts in which 26-year-old Washington Nationals' right-hander Jordan Zimmermann went at least six innings. Over the course of his career, opposing hitters have a .225/.278/.339 line against the pitcher over 96.0 IP in the 1st-3rd innings. The second time around in the 4th-6th innings, opposing hitters have a .267/.301/.437 line over 89.1 IP against Zimmermann. Opponents have a .362/.444/.585 line in the seventh inning against the '07 2nd Round pick over Zimmermann's first four years in the majors.
Zimmermann's thrown in the eighth inning just once so far in his career, in a 2011 start against new rotation mate Dan Haren and the Los Angeles Angels in a matchup Nats' skipper Davey Johnson called "one of the better" pitched games the 69-year-old baseball-lifer had seen to that point. The Nationals' starter gave up just four hits that day on the road in LA, with the Angels scoring one unearned run in a 1-0 win over Zimmermann and the Nats. Johnson was impressed with Zimmermann's outing, which saw him throw 93 pitches, 60 for strikes in 8.0 innings.
"90 something pitches in eight innings?" the manager asked reporters in an interview after the game, "I mean, that's outstanding. How they didn't hardly hit any balls hard. Ahead in the count all the time. I mean, he's a manager's joy to watch, that kind of pitching." Zimmermann threw first-pitch strikes to thirteen of twenty-eight Angels he faced that day and went to a 3-0 count just once with each of the four hits he allowed singles.
Before the start against Miami this season that ended his streak of 6.0 inning outings, Zimmermann was coming off a month of July for which he was later named the NL Pitcher of the Month. Zimmermann was (4-0) in six games against the Giants, Rockies, Marlins, Mets (twice) and Brewers, with a 0.97 ERA, a 2.08 FIP, four walks (0.97 BB/9) and 31 K's (7.54 K/9) in 37.0 innings of work on the mound in which the pitcher allowed 27 hits, five runs, four earned and one home run.
The last start of the six, in Milwaukee, saw the Auburndale, Wisconsin-born, Wisconsin-Stevens Point-educated pitcher return to his home state and hold the Brewers to one run on five hits in 6.0 IP. "Zim was Zim," Davey Johnson said after the game, "He struggled a little bit in the fourth inning, but picked up the pace and the sixth, just overpowered them, he breezed through the sixth." It was before that start against the Brewers that Zimmermann first talked to his pitching coach and manager about a problem getting loose while warming up which was eventually shown to be a result of inflammation in his shoulder.
"He's had a little trouble warming up," Davey Johnson explained to reporters in Milwaukee. "So we were a little concerned about that, that's what I was telling you about I was holding his pitches down. He's fine, but it concerns me any time when they have a little bit of trouble getting loose." The game against the Marlins that followed and ended the streak of at-least-six-inning starts saw Zimmermann, pitching on an extra day's rest, give up seven hits and five runs (four earned). The start that followed saw the Nats' right-hander shut the Houston Astros out over six innings in which he struck out 11.
Zimmermann ended the month of August with three starts in which opposing hitters had a .323/.389/.508 line against the Nationals' starter. Zimmermann's shortest outing of the year came in his first start in September, when the St. Louis Cardinals knocked the starter around and out after just 3.2 IP in which he gave up eight hits, two home runs and eight earned runs total. The four outings that followed saw Zimmermann recover, with Nats' wins over the Cubs, Mets, Dodgers and Brewers in which the Nationals' starter was (3-0) with a 2.19 ERA in 24.2 IP over which he held the opposition to a .226/.294/.409 line.
After the start at home against the LA Dodgers, the Nats' manager praised Zimmermann's work on the mound. "He's as strong as a bull. You guys were worried about him because he had a couple not Jordan-esque-type starts," Johnson said, teasing reporters who'd repeatedly asked about Zimmermann's shoulder, "but he'd had a little bit too much rest in-between. But last time out he was outstanding and he knows what he needs do to be successful up here and I like where he's at." Zimmermann held the Brewers to a run on four hits in 6.2 IP in the final start of that stretch in his next-to-last outing of the year.
The final two starts of Zimmermann's 2012 campaign both came against St. Louis. The Cardinals scored three runs on seven hits in 6.1 IP by Zimmermann in a 6-4 Nats' win on September 29th. In Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cards, in what would end up being his final start of the year, Zimmermann gave up seven hits and five runs in just 3.0 IP of a 12-4 loss. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Joe Strauss pointed out shortly after Zimmermann left the mound in Game 2 in St. Louis, the Nats' starter had a, "... 2.38 ERA against teams other than STL this season," and an, "... 11.08 ERA in 3 starts against Cards." Davey Johnson chalked Zimmermann's rough postseason debut up to inexperience.
"He didn't really make a lot adjustments out there," Johnson told reporters after the game, "He kind of stayed one way, hard away against a good fastball hitting club and you've got to use both sides of the plate. And he didn't really use his slider much early on. He started going to it a little later. But that's just a little inexperience." It was, of course, Zimmermann's first postseason start and most of the Nationals' first playoff run. "You just can't go after a club and just throw hard," Johnson said, "You've got to pitch. The difference [is] when you really mature as a pitcher, you use all your pitches and it's easier and obviously tonight [Zimmermann] had a good live fastball and good movement, but you can't stay one way."
Zimmermann wouldn't get a chance to make another start. He did pitch once more in Game 4 of the NLDS, coming out of the pen and dominating the Cardinals in a 12-pitch, three strikeout inning of work. The right-hander finished his fourth MLB season with a 2.94 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 43 BB (1.98 BB/9) and 153 Ks (7.04 K/9) in a career-high 32 starts and 195.2 IP. Zimmermann ended the year on a positive note, gained another year of experience and pitched a full season in his second full year back from Tommy John surgery. Bill James' projections have Zimmermann posting a 3.32 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 1.94 BB/9 and 7.44 K/9 in 2013. Impressive as he was as a reliever, the right-hander will be back in the Nationals' rotation behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and in front of Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren in what on paper is the best rotation the Nationals have had. Though he'll likely follow Stras and Gio in the rotation, don't call Zimmermann a no.3 starter. That just makes Zimmermann fans angry.