Washington Nationals' right-hander Jordan Zimmermann had a 1-0 lead before he even took the mound last time out. A Ryan Zimmerman RBI single in the top of the first in Los Angeles gave him a lead to work with. The Nats' 26-year-old right-hander left a 2-0 pitch up for Dodgers' left-handed slugger Adrian Gonzalez to line to right for a two-out single in the home-half of the first, but that was the only hit he allowed in his first two innings of work on the mound in Dodger Stadium Tuesday night. A two-run double by Zimmerman and an RBI single by Adam LaRoche made it 4-0 Nationals early in LA, and though Zimmermann had a lead to work with all the way in what ended up a 6-2 win, the start was not without its adversity.
A leadoff single by Nick Punto in third was erased with a double play grounder in the second at bat of a scoreless, 15-pitch inning. Speedy Dodgers' leadoff man Dee Gordon singled to start the fourth, stole second and took third on a throwing error by Zimmermann's catcher, Kurt Suzuki. With a runner on third and no one out, Zimmermann plowed through the middle of the LA lineup, popping up Adrian Gonzalez, striking out Matt Kemp and getting over to cover first on a sharp grounder to LaRoche by Andre Ethier that the Nats' Gold Glove-winning first baseman somehow snagged.
A leadoff triple on which Bryce Harper had his run-in with the right field fence put a runner on third to start the second straight inning in the bottom of the fifth, and that one scored for one of the two runs Zimmermann allowed that night. The Nationals' 2007 second round pick pitched around a leadoff double in the sixth and another leadoff single in the seventh. Three of the Dodgers' nine hits on the night came in the eighth, when he gave up another run before he was lifted with his team up 6-2 in what ended up his seventh win of the season once Tyler Clippard finished the eighth and Drew Storen pitched a scoreless ninth.
Asked if he was impressed with his pitcher's ability to work out of trouble all night after the game, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson pointed back to the threat in the fourth and the way Zimmermann worked around a runner on third with no outs as the perfect example of what the Wisconsin-born starter is all about. "I think when the guy was on third with no outs and he got out of that," Johnson told reporters, "just shows you what kind of pitcher he is."
"He pitched a great ballgame," Johnson said afterwards, "Another great ballgame. Probably got a little bit tired there at the end, but heck of a ballgame, you know, he's been outstanding."
Through eight starts this season, Zimmermann is (7-1) after the win in Los Angeles, with a 1.69 ERA, 2.64 FIP, nine walks (4.0 BB%) and 39 Ks (17.3 K%) over 58.2 IP so far in 2013. While the Nats' right-hander has garnered more and more attention from the national baseball press over the last few seasons, after the win in LA, he said that he really isn't pitching differently than he has in the past and though he may appear more sure of his ability to get major league hitters out, confidence has never been a problem for the pitcher.
"I've always been confident," Jordan Zimmermann told reporters after the start against the Dodgers, "And I feel like I haven't changed anything all year, or changed anything from last year, and it's just the way the ball is bouncing right now. And I'm pitching to contact, throwing strikes and I feel if I keep that up I'm going to have a lot more quality starts."
The results of his approach so far in 2013? A 49.4% ground ball percentage, up from 43.4% in 2012 and 39.4% in 2011. Zimmermann's HR/FB ratio is down from 5.9% in 2011 and 9.2% last season to 4.1% so far this year. His HR/9 are down from 0.67 in '11 and 0.83 in 2012 to 0.31 so far this year and his BABIP is down as well from .291 to .288 and .230.
The .230 BABIP is the 5th lowest in the NL. Zimmermann's 1.69 ERA is the 5th lowest. The 2.65 FIP in the NL's 6th lowest. The 0.31 HR is the National League's third lowest. The 4.1 HR/FB ratio is the second-lowest in the league.
As far as Zimmermann's concered, however, there's really only one big difference that he attributes to his early season success. "I'm pitching the same way and doing the same things," Zimmermann said, "It's just, getting a lot more run support this year, which is always good."
"I don't think anything is different," Zimmermann reiterated in an interview on MLB.com, "I'm doing the same thing, sticking to the same program. Pretty much pitching the same and I'm just, I'd say, getting a little more run support this year than I did last year and getting an early lead like that, it's a lot easier to pitch and a lot less stressful." The 4.13 RS (Run Support Average Per Start) is significantly higher than the 2.67 RS Stephen Strasburg has received. Dan Haren's got just 3.13.
Zimmermann said he's also using all of his pitches effectively so far this season. "I'm mixing all the pitches in right now and everything is working well," he explained, and it doesn't hurt that his team's playing well behind him. "We're playing some good ball right now," the right-hander explained, and he just wants to do his part. "Every time I go out there I'm trying to go six, seven, eight innings, going deep as I can and try to be as pitch efficient as I can and throw strikes and let the other team put the ball in play."
"I want to just go as deep as I can," he continued, "and try not to throw too many pitches early in the game and if I can stay in there for seven or eight innings, I feel like I'm doing my job."
So nothing's different from previous seasons? Really?
"The changeup is what I've been working on all Spring Training and it's been a lot better this year and I feel confident throwing it whenever I need it and so, that's pretty much the only pitch I've really been working on." Zimmermann's thrown the change 2.7% of the time so far in 2013, up from 2.1% in each of the two previous seasons. He's also throwing more fastballs and less sliders. Whatever he's doing this year. It's working so far. Zimmermann makes his ninth start of the season tonight in San Diego's Petco Park.