Nats reward Zimmermann

Nats reward Zimmermann
July 19, 2012, 4:39 am
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If there are still any detractors out there for the Nationals' plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September, perhaps these words from Jordan Zimmermann following another stellar pitching performance Wednesday night will help change their minds.

"I definitely feel stronger another year after surgery," said Zimmermann, now nearly three full years removed from Tommy John surgery. "Last year was hit-or-miss. I didn't know how I was going to feel. But this whole year I've been feeling great. I haven't had any aches or pains. So, knock on wood, I hope that keeps going."

The Nationals certainly hope Zimmermann keeps this up, because what he's doing right now is out-pitching everyone else from their star-studded rotation, not to mention out-pitching just about every other hurler in the big leagues.

With six more scoreless innings -- helping pave the way for a 4-3 victory over the Mets -- Zimmermann continued both his streak of consistent quality work as well as his recent streak of sheer excellence on the mound.

That's now 17 quality starts for Zimmermann in 19 games overall, every single start lasting at least six innings. And over his last five outings, he's now 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA.

In short, the right-hander is getting stronger and better each time he toes the rubber, earning more and more praise from his teammates and manager.

"I mean, he's a man out there," Davey Johnson said. "No doubt about it. He has a great presence. He knows what he wants to do. There's no muss, no fuss. He says: 'Here, hit it.'"

What the Nationals are witnessing right now is the ascension of a top prospect into an elite major-league pitcher. Zimmermann now owns the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 2.35, not to mention the most quality starts.

The Nationals always knew Zimmermann had this in him; the timeline was just delayed by his 2009 elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Zimmermann wound up missing most of 2010 while rehabbing the injury. He returned strong last season but as he pointed out was "hit-or-miss" from start to start, then was shut down at the end of August with his innings count at 161 13.

These days, the 26-year-old is healthy, experienced and strong. And as his numbers start looking better and better, the rest of the sport is beginning to recognize the top of the Nationals' rotation doesn't include only All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.

"I can't say enough about him," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's quiet and goes about his business, but he's turning into a No. 1 for anybody."

The only knock on Zimmermann this season has been something completely out of his control: A lack of run support, leading to a dearth of wins. That has finally begun to change over the last month, with the Nationals scoring an average of 6.4 runs during each of his last five starts.

LaRoche provided the key support on Wednesday, turning a scoreless game in the sixth into a 2-0 advantage when he launched an opposite-field blast into the Red Porch seats. That put Zimmermann in line to earn his seventh win and get his record over .500 for the first time since -- get this -- he was 2-1 during his rookie season.

"I'll buy him whatever he wants, a steak or something," Zimmermann said of LaRoche.

Informed of his teammate's offer, the veteran first baseman replied: "I'll take him up on that steak."

It appeared for a while that 2-0 lead would hold up, but as it turned out Zimmermann and the Nationals needed Steve Lombardozzi's two-run double in the seventh at night's end.

That's because closer Tyler Clippard, one night after blowing a two-run lead to the Mets in the ninth inning, nearly did it again. Entrusted with a 4-1 lead this time, he served up a homer to David Wright on his very first pitch, then another solo shot to Jason Bay with two outs.

Up came Jordany Valdespin, the man whose three-run bomb Tuesday night cost Clippard his first blown save since he took over closer duties, but there was nothing for the crowd of 31,660 to worry about. Clippard calmly struck out the pinch-hitter, and the Nationals' 18th one-run win of the season was in the books.

They now lead the Mets by a full 8 games in the NL East, with a chance for a sweep Thursday afternoon. And after a wild, extra-inning finish in Atlanta, they now lead the Braves by 4 12 games with a big, four-game weekend series between the two clubs looming.

Not that the Nationals were focused on the standings late Wednesday night. They were just happy to get their unsung right-hander a much-deserved victory.

"Zim was outstanding," Johnson said. "He just continues to go out there and put zeroes up. Glad we scored in the bottom of that inning, get him the win. He's pitched well enough to be 12-2 or something."

For now, 7-6 will have to suffice.