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Washington Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann's Breakout Year?

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25-year-old right-hander Jordan Zimmermann's allowed seven runs total over his last three starts, three on five hits in 6.1 IP of a 6-5 loss to Atlanta, two on four hits in 6.1 IP of a 2-1 loss to Baltimore and two on five hits in 6.0 IP of this past Saturday's 2-1 loss to San Diego.

After the particularly frustrating loss to the Padres, a game in which Washington managed just five hits and one run (on Laynce Nix's 7th HR) off right-hander Tim Stauffer, going 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position, stranding Jerry Hairston at second after a leadoff double in a one-run game and twice grounding into rally-killing double plays, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked if he had any concerns about Zimmermann developing a hard-luck loser mentality.

"No," Riggleman responded, "He's a tough guy. He knows how he pitched good, and he knows he didn't pitch as good as he could. I think if you go in there and ask him, he felt good today, but he felt really good in Baltimore. So, he's a tough guy, he's strong mentally, and I don't have any concerns about his state of mind."

Asked directly how he avoided getting discouraged when he'd pitched as well as he has this season and seen the Nationals go 3-7 in his 10 starts, Zimmermann told reporters, "You've got to move forward, put this game behind us, and I've just got to get ready for my next game in five days and try to go deep in the ballgame again." 

The Nats' right-hander threw to Pudge Rodriguez in his first two starts of 2010, surrendering 10 hits, five runs, four earned in 11.1 IP. Rookie backstop WIlson Ramos caught the right-hander in his next three outings, and Zimmermann allowed a combined 22 hits and 14 runs, 11 earned in 18.1 IP, with ten of the runs and seventeen of the hits coming in his last two starts in April, both Nats' losses.

Since then it's been exclusively Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate for five-straight starts in May in which Zimmermann's had a 3.23 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 8.80 K/9, 3.75 K/BB ratio, .277 BABIP and a 72.9 LOB% following April's 4.55 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 4.45 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, .293 BABIP and 50.6 LOB% in March/April. 

Jim Riggleman talked about Zimmermann this morning during an appearance on the MLB Network Radio's First Pitch with Rob Dibble and Jim Memolo, telling the hosts he's pleased with the development of the top pitching prospect in the system before Stephen Strasburg came around. "Knock on wood, he's just gotten better and better the further and further he's gotten away from the surgery," Riggleman said, "We saw glimpses of it last year, but he's really been good this year, he's throwing all of his pitches, all the cliched things: working fast, fielding his position, holding runners, throwing strikes, you know, he's doing it all and he's maintaining his velocity." 

"We really feel like he's gravitating towards [being] one of those top of the rotation guys," Riggleman continued, "It's not showing up in the win column because we just have not taken off offensively, and he and Livan Hernandez have been the two guys that have been victimized the most by low-scoring games on the day that they pitched."

When Zimmermann first stormed onto the scene in 2009, before he had Tommy John surgery, the then-23-year-old starter K'd 92 (9.07 K/9), walked 29 (2.86 BB/9), posted a 4.63 ERA, a 3.59 FIP, .332 BABIP and 12.2% HR/FB ratio over 16 starts and 91.0 IP. Over 60.1 IP so far this season, Zimmermann's K'd 44 (6.56 K/9), walked 13 (1.94 BB/9) and put up a 3.88 ERA, 2.77 FIP, .286 BABIP and a 3.6% HR/FB ratio. Zimmermann's throwing a lot more sliders (16.1% in '09, 10.8% in 2010, 24.1% this season), which he told 106.7 the FAN in DC's Overtime with Bill Rohland and Danny Rouhier earlier this Spring, had been his best pitch before Tommy John surgery:

"[Before the surgery] my slider was my best pitch and my curve ball was just, okay I guess, but after surgery my slider just went away and I had a hard time throwing it and the curve ball then became [a] better pitch, and it was more of a 12-6, a true curve, and had some pretty good bite to it. But now that I started up again, the slider seems to be back and the curve ball seems to back, so I don't know, I guess that's a [best] case scenario."

Zimmermann makes his eleventh start of the season tonight in Arizona, looking to for his first win in three starts. In his last three outings, Zimmermann's allowed 14 hits, seven runs and four walks which recording 20 K's in 18.2 IP and twice throwing over 100 pitches. The right-hander's on an innings-limit this season, which Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman said would be, "around 150-160.0 innings." Will the Nats get their first look at a Zimmermann/Stephen Strasburg 1-2 punch late this season? The two starters were supposed to pitch at the top of rotation this year before Strasburg's own elbow injury, if Nats fans have to wait until 2012, it should be worth it.