Jordan Zimmermann has a 'textbook' performance
Ignore, for a moment, the Nationals' offensive issues, which made a return appearance Friday night in scratching out all of one run on six hits against the Reds. Forget, for now, about Adam LaRoche's 0-for-18 slump at the plate and the injuries to Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos that have stripped Davey Johnson's lineup of two potent bats.
Sure, the Nationals still have some question marks four weeks into the season, questions that may or may resolve themselves in the days and weeks to come. On this night, don't spent a moment fretting about any of that and just sit back and appreciate back-to-back pitching performances not seen in these parts in nearly a century.
What Jordan Zimmermann did Friday deserves attention all unto itself. With a Clemens-like arsenal and Maddux-like efficiency, he 1-hit a very good Cincinnati lineup, going the distance on only 91 pitches, a masterful outing that proved entirely necessary for the Nationals to pull off a 1-0 victory on South Capitol Street.
"Since I've been here, that's the best-pitched game I've seen," manager Davey Johnson proclaimed.
By one measure, it was the best-pitched game by a Nationals hurler in almost eight years. According to Bill James' "Game Score" formula — which awards points for innings pitched, outs recorded and strikeouts and subtracts points for runs, hits and walks surrendered — Zimmermann's gem has been bested only once since baseball returned to D.C.: By John Patterson, who struck out 13 Dodgers during an Aug. 4, 2005 shutout.
Making this one all the more impressive: It came only 24 hours after Gio Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano combined to hold the Reds to one hit. How rare are back-to-back 1-hitters? The Nationals/Expos franchise had never done it before. The last D.C.-based team to do it was the 1917 Senators. The last time it happened to the Reds? July 5-6, 1900.
"I take a lot of pride in that," said Kurt Suzuki, who was behind the plate for both of these gems. "I mean, I love getting hits, don't get me wrong. But this is what I really take my pride in, calling a game like this, getting a pitcher through eight or nine innings. And especially throwing a shutout like tonight: 1-0, not like a blowout. These are the games I take a lot of pride in. I'm sure the pitchers do, too."
The soft-spoken, stone-faced Zimmermann doesn't reveal his emotions to the world often, but he admitted this was among the best games he's ever pitched, certainly since he reached the major leagues in 2009.
"Right up there," he said. "I felt pretty good. It's one of the top three, at least."
Zimmermann took the mound at 7:05 p.m., not necessarily feeling his best after a shaky warm-up session in the bullpen. But it didn't take long for him — or anyone else inside the ballpark — to realize he could do something special in this game.
The right-hander retired the first six batters he faced on a scant 18 pitches. Xavier Paul led off the third inning with a nondescript single to center. Little did anyone realize that would be the lone blemish on Zimmermann's line score.
He proceeded to carve up Cincinnati's lineup with stunning efficiency. In six of his nine innings, he retired the side on 10 or fewer pitches. When he needed to overpower Joey Votto, he fired a 96 mph fastball for strike three. When he needed to bear down and make a big pitch when it looked like the Reds might finally get to him in the eighth, he fooled Jack Hannahan with an 86 mph slider for his fourth K of the night.
And when he took the mound for the ninth to a rousing chorus of cheers from the crowd of 32,995, he needed all of five pitches to retire the top of the lineup and finish off the first shutout of his career.
"This is the best I've felt in a long time," Zimmermann said. "A really good slider tonight, and a good fastball to go with it. We knew they swung early, and we wanted to throw first-pitch strikes and quality pitches and let them get themselves out and let the defense work. And that's what we did tonight."
Zimmermann did it all with no margin for error. A Nationals lineup that busted out for eight runs Thursday night fell back into its bad habits Friday night against right-hander Homer Bailey, scratching out one run in the fourth inning on Bryce Harper's triple and Jayson Werth's base hit past a drawn-in infield.
Given his team's razor-thin lead, Johnson could have had Soriano at least get loose in the bullpen during the ninth, just in case Zimmermann got into a jam. But the 70-year-old skipper never even considered pulling his young starter.
"He was going to keep going unless he couldn't walk out there," Johnson said. "No, I wouldn't have got anybody up. Even if a guy got on base, it was his game."
One month into this season, Zimmermann (4-1, 2.00 ERA) is establishing himself as the most-consistent (and perhaps the best) member of the Nationals' vaunted rotation. He's now tossed complete games in two of his last three starts, earning more and more recognition from around the baseball world.
"He deserves it," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "Ross [Detwiler] deserves it. They've got [Stephen Strasburg] and Gio ... but those two guys definitely deserve what they're getting right now. The people in baseball know that. I think the thing that's probably more important to both of those guys is that their teammates know it. That's all that counts to them."