Updated at 12:00 a.m.
PHILADELPHIA — Jordan Zimmermann has made 132 starts in the big leagues, several of them as a rookie with a barking elbow that needed Tommy John surgery, but never before had he stood on the mound after throwing a pitch and motioned to the Nationals dugout that he needed to come out of a game.
So when that scene played out Friday night during the fourth inning of what would become a 6-2 loss to the Phillies, it was perfectly appropriate for anybody employed by or otherwise associated with the Nationals to drop everything for a moment and fear the worst.
By night's end, when it was disclosed Zimmermann had suffered from cramping in his right biceps, there were more sighs of relief than calls for panic. But until the All-Star right-hander gets an MRI on Saturday to determine the full extent of the injury, no one will know for sure.
Zimmermann, for his part, was confident this was purely a muscular issue, nothing like the elbow injury he experienced five years ago.
"When I had the elbow problems, I knew something wasn't right the whole time and just kept trying to pitch through it," he said. "This, I don't think it's anything major, to be honest with you. It's a little cramping, and it just felt really tight. So I didn't want to push it."
Zimmermann said he began feeling the cramping sensation in his biceps during the third inning. It wasn't affecting his velocity, and though he had given up four runs to the Phillies, he thought he could pitch through the discomfort.
But the pain worsened in the bottom of the fourth, and after throwing a 1-2 slider to catcher Cameron Rupp, Zimmermann realized what needed to be done. He motioned to the Nationals' dugout, and when manager Matt Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz arrived, he told them he should probably come out of the game.
"The inning before, I came out and I could feel it a little bit," he said. "And when I went back out there, it was gradually getting worse and worse every pitch. I thought I could maybe get a couple more innings out of it before it got too bad. But it got pretty bad, so I called them out and told them what the deal was and they got me out of there. Hopefully the MRI comes back good and we'll go from there."
The Nationals were cautiously optimistic afterward that their rotation stalwart wasn't seriously hurt, based on the location of the injury.
"It's always a concern when you've got to take somebody out of the game because they have an issue," Williams said. "We'll get more results tomorrow, but the fact that it's in the belly of the muscle is a better spot than anywhere else."
This much is certain: Zimmermann won't be pitching for the NL on Tuesday in Minneapolis, the second consecutive season he won't be able to appear in the All-Star Game due to injury. (He sat out last summer's game due to a lingering neck issue, though he never missed a start for the Nationals.)
"Obviously you want to go over there, and I had all the plans made up and everything," he said. "I want to pitch in front of my family (from nearby Auburndale, Wisc.). Hopefully everything's fine. That's not the main problem right now. It's getting healthy. Hopefully there will be another one down the road."
Whether Zimmermann still makes the trip to Minnesota, or whether another Nationals player will be named an All-Star replacement remains to be seen. Williams plans to speak to NL manager Mike Matheny about the options.
Of more significance to the Nationals is Zimmermann's long-term prognosis. If the injury isn't deemed serious, he could still get an extended break and not be needed to pitch again until July 22 at Colorado. If a stint on the disabled list is required, he would miss more time, and that's when the Nationals could be in trouble.
"If he can't pitch for awhile, it's a big deal," said Craig Stammen, who replaced Zimmermann as an emergency reliever, just as he did four years ago when Stephen Strasburg tore his elbow ligament in this same ballpark. "He's been our most consistent [starter]. He's our All-Star. We've got guys that hopefully would be able to come and up replace him and do just as good of a job."
Zimmermann had been on a dominant stretch over the last five weeks, posting a 1.26 ERA over his previous seven starts. But he was roughed up by the Phillies in this game, surrendering three straight hits in the second inning, then three straight hits in the third inning, including a 2-run homer to Jimmy Rollins.
"He was throwing good," catcher Wilson Ramos said. "They were good pitches. That happens. Nobody's perfect. For me, he was throwing good. But he felt something."
Zimmermann has already overcome one major injury in his career, undergoing Tommy John surgery as a rookie in 2009. He returned a year later and has been healthy, durable and dominant since, going 45-32 with a 3.07 ERA in 108 starts over the last four seasons.
Now he and the Nationals will simply have to wait for Saturday's MRI, hoping the test confirms their suspicions that this isn't cause for long-term concern.
"The shoulder feels fine. Elbow feels great," he said. "They did all the tests and everything was good, everything was strong. I'm not too worried. I just think the biceps [is] a little ticked off right now. Hopefully a couple days off and it should be better."