As the innings on his team-imposed limit rapidly dwindle, and his season draws nearer to a premature -- but inevitable -- conclusion, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann last night once again showed why he's so valuable to the Washington Nationals -- not only in a season when they are trying desperately to show marked improvement record-wise, but to the health and long-term success of The Plan (tm) this franchise put in place when they made Mike Rizzo the General Manager in the wake of Jim Bowden's scandal-filled tenure.
Zimmermann didn't have his good stuff last night; far from it actually. Regardless, he still dominated a Cincinnati Reds offense that has several very dangerous hitters, leading the Nats to a 3-1 victory on a rainy night at Nats Park. Though Zimmermann got ahead of hitters all night by pounding the strike zone -- as he does every time he takes the mound -- he had difficulty putting the pesky Reds hitters away, recording just one strikeout on the evening.
But he battled with every one of his 102 pitches, limiting the Reds to six hits and two walks, shutting them out in his 5 2/3 innings of work. Only one of his hits allowed, a second inning two-out double, was of the extra-base variety. The only thing that manager Davey Johnson took exception to about Zimmermann's performance was that it just wasn't quite long enough.
Zimmermann's only real "jam" came in his final frame, when he allowed a two-out walk followed by a single that put men on the corners. Johnson saw enough and called on Ryan Mattheus, who put out the small fire by striking out shortstop Paul Janish.
“I told him after the game, don’t make me have to come out there when you’ve got unfinished business out there," Johnson explained. "I don't like to do it. He’s too good a pitcher.” Asked if he considered leaving Zimmermann in after Ryan Hanigan's two-out single though, Johnson replied succinctly, "No."
Johnson fully understands both the immediate need to see Zimmermann pitch as he progresses from last year's Tommy John surgery, and the dichotic need to limit the amount of total innings he throws this season. He needs to pitch deeper into games to build arm strength to assume the lofty status Nats officials think he can hold, but not so much that it places strain on the surgically rebuilt joint -- or other other parts of his arm compensating for the elbow.
When asked if it will be difficult to have to shut Zimmermann down once he reaches his innings limit, Johnson was matter-of-fact, "No question about it. But I got two more starts out of him."
Two more starts this season. That's all fans -- and the organization -- have left to see the Nats burgeoning ace before he's shut down for the winter. It's been a tremendous season for Zimmermann, better than anyone might have hoped for. His 8-10 record masks some otherwise truly outstanding peripheral numbers: 3.11 ERA, 1.124 WHIP, 1.6 BB/9 and 4.35 K/BB. Those are the marks of a staff ace. And if Stephen Strasburg can make the same progress in his Tommy John recovery that Zimmermann has, the Nats can dream about starting the 2012 season with two aces at the top of their rotation.
It's an enviable position to build a contender from.
NATS NOTES: Mattheus was lifted after just the one batter faced. He felt tightness in his arm between innings, which Jayson Werth of all people noticed and informed Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty. Mattheus said he felt it lifting weights earlier in the day, and Johnson would not allow him to continue pitching. Mattheus is listed as day-to-day.
Jesus Flores hit a solo home run last night, his first since the night he originally injured his shoulder in 2009. It's another milestone for the catcher, trying to piece his career back together after missing most of two seasons rehabbing multiple surgeries on the joint.