"Yeah, you remember, I think a couple starts ago, he had that little stiff neck again?" Davey Johnson asked reporters rhetorically. "I don't know. Maybe he's got too soft a pillow or something he sleeps on or something. But I'm hoping he wears that brace every time he goes out, that was a heck of a game." The Washington Nationals' 70-year-old skipper was talking about Jordan Zimmermann after the right-handed starter led the Nats to a 7-0 win over Minnesota on Sunday in the matinee of Nats' doubleheader with the Twins.
"We had a little meeting like I told you yesterday," Johnson explained, "and at the meeting he had the neck brace on and his arm all covered, I was a little worried about him."
It wasn't a neck brace. Jordan Zimmermann laughed a little when a reporter mentioned Johnson's comments. Asked if there was an issue, the 27-year-old said , "No. I just put a little heat on to warm it up. Apparently the meeting was a joke on me or something, and right away he asked if I was going to be all right and I said, 'I'll be fine.' and you know, he was a little concerned."
Zimmermann was clear that it wasn't a brace at all, but, "... a little heading pad that's fit for your neck." Johnson had previously mentioned that Zimmermann dealt and pitched with neck stiffness before and during a recent start in the nation's capital. The Nationals' starter said Sunday, however, that the heating pad that was fit for his neck and the heat it provided was more of a preventative measure. "It was just a little tight a couple days ago," Zimmermann said, "so I didn't want to take any chances, so I figured heat it up and be good to go."
Johnson did tell reporters after the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick's start against the Philadelphia Phillies a few weeks back that the pitcher had woken up with a stiff neck, but tried to avoid having his manager notice.
"[He] kind of hid it from me," Johnson said, "But I knew he had it. You know, nothing's really hidden from the manager. So I kind of cut him shorter than I normally would. But he still threw a heck of a ballgame." That night Zimmermann gave up just six hits and two runs in seven innings on the mound in what ended up an 8-2 Nats' win.
Johnson praised the work his starter did against the Phillies, explaining to reporters afterwards that Zimmermann was attacking hitters and pounding the strike zone. "He's going right after good hitters and he's making pitches," Johnson said, "He uses both sides of the plate. He's got good movement, late movement, exploding fastball and he mixes in his breaking ball and throws it in a good spot."
The Nationals' Auburndale,Wisconsin-born starter's breaking ball was particularly nasty Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins. He got back-to-back Ks with his curve after putting the first runner of the day on with a one-out walk in the top of the second. Zimmermann threw fastballs by the Twins' eight and nine-hole hitters in the third, then threw a filthy 1-2 change by Twins' catcher Ryan Doumit to pitch around a two-out walk he issued and an error committed by rookie second baseman Anthony Rendon. Zimmermann was up to 64 pitches at that point, however, after a 23-pitch second and 28-pitch third.
By the fourth, the Twins' hitters were swinging early in the count and even though he gave up a single, Zimmermann threw a five-pitch inning that allowed him to stick around longer than he likely would have otherwise. Davey Johnson said after Zimmermann's start against Philadelphia that was how opposing hitters reacted when Zimmermann was sharp. "You can always tell, good-hitting ballclubs don't want to get to two strikes on him," Johnson said, "so they're swinging the bat and he'll have some quick innings."
A throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman put a runner on with one out in the fifth, but the Nats' right-hander held the Twins of the board with a scoreless 15-pitch inning. Asked how he worked around errors like Rendon and Zimmerman's, the Nats' starter told reporters he just stuck with the same approach as usual. "Just keep pounding the strike zone," he said, "and hopefully they put the ball in play and give [the infielders] another chance."
Chris Parmelee doubled with two down in the sixth for the second hit of the game off the Nats' starter, but he was stranded one out later and Zimmermann retired the Twins in order in the top of the seventh, striking pinch hitter Chris Colabello out with a 96 mph 0-2 fastball on his 111th pitch, which was one shy of his career high.
Zimmermann struck out eight, got seven ground ball outs and earned the win to improve to (9-3) on the season with a 2.00 ERA, a 3.11 FIP and a career-high 50.9% ground ball percentage after 13 starts and 94.2 IP in 2013.
"He pitched a great ballgame, threw a lot of pitches early, but finished up really great," Davey Johnson said.
"Curve ball was good," Zimmermann said. "Fastball was good the whole time. And, you know, the first three innings I threw  pitches and they kept fouling stuff off -- it wasn't like I was getting behind too much, but I needed some quick innings, and the next two were pretty quick and kind of got the pitch count where it was manageable and I was able to go seven."