25-year-old '07 2nd Round pick Jordan Zimmermann's last major league start before Sunday's came on August 28, 2011. After that game, in which he threw 81 pitches in 4.1 IP, Zimmermann was shut down for the year, having reached the inning total he was limited to last year in his first full season back following Tommy John surgery in 2009. The right-hander's third major league season ended with Zimmermann (8-11) in 26 starts and 161.1 IP over which he'd posted a 3.18 ERA and a 3.16 FIP with 31 walks (1.73 BB/9) and 124 K's (6.92 K/9) on the year. Zimmermann's K/9 were down from 9.07 K/9 in '09 and 7.84 at the end of the 2010 season when he returned to get innings on his arm in advance of his return to the rotation in 2011. "I've just come to realize that if I keep trying to strike everyone out," Zimmermann said last September, "my pitch count is going to get higher faster and I'm not going to be able to stay in the game as long."
"I wasn't really trying to strike guys out last year," Zimmermann explained in an MLB Network Radio interview in March, "I was just trying to pitch to contact and get some quick outs so I could stay in the ballgame a lot longer and I kind of realized that last year. That was the first time that I'm like I just want guys to put it in play and let them get themselves out. Years before that I wanted to strike everyone out and that's why I could only make it five innings, five and a third. And last year I was able to go six, seven innings and keeping the pitch count low is a big key for me."
Though he would have preferred to keep pitching after he'd been shut down last August, the Nats' starter seemed to understand the decision on the Nats' part, and he told the MLB Network Radio hosts that he thought it prepared him well to be able to pitch the entire 2012 campaign. "I felt strong at the end of last year and I feel like I can go 200+ innings this year," Zimmermann said, "so I'm excited to get going with this season and see what happens."
As for what he was working on for the start of the 2012 season, Zimmermann said last year that, "The only thing I've really got to fine tune is a changeup. The last couple years I've been having a hard time with that and I finally found a grip that feels comfortable to me. And I've been throwing it the last couple games here and it feels great. It's got good late movement and it's a little bit slower than the fastball so that's always good and I just have to keep working on that and fine tune it a bit." After his last start this Spring, the right-hander told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, that his change had, "... finally gotten to a point where he's comfortable -- and effective -- with it,":
"'I came into spring and it was hit or miss -- and missing more than I was hitting,' Zimmermann said. 'Right now I feel like I could throw it down in the count or down on the zone anytime I want. The last one to Big Papi there was a changeup so I was pretty happy there.
"'I think the more I face some teams and throw it to them, if I throw a lot of good ones they're going to have that in the back of their mind, 'He's got this fastball and slider and curve but you have to watch out for his changeup.' If I can just mix it in and throw it five, six times a game I think that's all I really need to throw it.'"
In his first start of the 2012 season this afternoon in Chicago's Wrigley Field, Zimmermann started his season with a nine-pitch, eight-strike, 1-2-3 frame against the Cubs. A five-pitch second, and an 11-pitch third followed, with the right-hander allowing only a one-out single in his first three innings of work. The Cubs' scored a run on a sac fly in the fourth and after a 14-pitch frame the Nats' right-hander was through 4.0 innings on 39 pitches, having allowed just two hits and one unearned run. Zimmermann allowed a leadoff double in the fifth, but retired the next three batters on five pitches for a seven-pitch inning.
The one earned run Zimmermann allowed this afternoon scored in the Cubs' sixth when Darwin Barney doubled to start the frame and scored on an Alfonso Soriano RBI single to make a 2-1 game a half-inning after the Nationals had rallied to tie the game in the top of the inning. Cubs' first baseman Bryan LaHair collected the sixth hit in 7.0 innings against Zimmermann, who was replaced in the eighth by pinch hitter Chad Tracy. Zimmermann's 15-pitch seventh had him at 80 pitches total, and the right-hander told reporters he was more than prepared to keep going.
"I felt strong towards the end," Zimmermann said, "I think I was third up that inning so we were going to try to get a run across and unfortunately weren't able to do that, but I still felt strong in the seventh." "I could have gone further with [Zimmermann]," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, "He was still throwing good and had a very low pitch count. Tough loss." "Another" tough loss, CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) tweeted after today's game, noting that the Nats' starter should be used to getting little in the way of run support since, "... 7 of Jordan Zimmermann's last 12 losses have come when he's allowed 2 or fewer earned runs." Today's start saw Zimmermann working much more efficiently than he has in the past. In seven 7.0 inning outings so far in his career, the right-hander's averaged 96 pitches per start. He finished today's game at 80 pitches against a Cubs' team that was clearly determined to swing early in the count.
The right-hander didn't get a chance to use his change much with the Cubs swinging early and often at his fastball and slider. Of his 80 pitches, Zimmermann threw 48 fastballs, 19 sliders, eight curves and just two changeups according to MLB.com's Gameday pitch tracker, and he kept the pitch count low so he would have been available had the Nats needed him to come back after the seventh. One of these days the offense will get around to giving the right-hander some run support.