Zimmermann tames Tigers' tough lineup

Zimmermann tames Tigers' tough lineup
May 9, 2013, 1:00 am
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Zimmermann records NL-best 6th win

From his position at first base, Adam LaRoche often gets an unfiltered reaction from opposing hitters to the man they're facing on any particular night. What LaRoche was hearing from the handful of Detroit Tigers who reached base Wednesday night against Jordan Zimmermann was enough to convince him the Nationals' young right-hander legitimately belongs in conversation with baseball's very best pitchers right now.

"Oh man, it's incredible," LaRoche said. "When you've got the other team coming down talking about how nasty he is and how they've all been keeping up and know how good of a pitcher he his, it's a pretty good sign."

It's also a fairly good sign when that pitcher shuts down three of the sport's most fearsome lineups in succession, capped by this dismantling of the Tigers during a 3-1 victory that was as impressive as any the Nationals have strung together so far this season.

"I don't think he's scared of anybody," LaRoche said. "I don't think he cares who's hitting. He's pounding the zone and working ahead, sticking with his plan. It continues to pay off."

Add the Tigers to Zimmermann's growing list of victims. He shut out the Reds on one hit. He didn't allow a run to the Braves over eight innings. And though he did finally surrender a run to the Tigers — ending his streak of consecutive scoreless innings at 20 — he didn't surrender any more to a Detroit club that had plated 74 runs over its previous 10 games.

And thanks to some timely hits from his teammates, highlighted by Bryce Harper's first homer in 11 days, and a gritty escape act from reliever Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning, Zimmermann emerged with yet another win. With six victories in seven starts, he now leads the NL, also sporting a 1.59 ERA that ranks second in the league.

"He's been as good as it gets, I think, for a few years now," Clippard said. "He's been one of our most solid guys out there. Every five days you give him the ball, he's durable and he goes and attacks guys. That's what you want out of anybody in the starting rotation, and he's given us that year-in and year-out over the last few years."

Zimmermann's latest outing wasn't as picturesque as his previous two, which were near-flawless performances. He had to battle a bit this time, pitching only one clean inning out of seven.

But he came up with some big pitches at big moments, whether striking out Andy Dirks with two out and two on in the top of the third, striking out Alex Avila with two out and two on in the top of the sixth or closing out his seventh and final inning by retiring Torii Hunter and preventing the fearsome Miguel Cabrera from stepping to the plate with a chance to tie the game on one swing.

Manager Davey Johnson showed a world of confidence in Zimmermann during that seventh inning, never calling down to the bullpen to get somebody loose in case his starter couldn't finish the job.

"I just had total confidence in him," Johnson said. "I didn't see any drop-off in his stuff in the seventh inning. He's pitched so well, I didn't want to bring anybody in. He's earned that right."

Said Zimmermann: "I figured it was going to be mine no matter what. Having Hunter up there, you don't want to face Cabrera with a 2-run lead and he's the tying run. So I did everything I could to make some pretty good pitches and got him to pop up."

Zimmermann may have avoided having to face the heart of the Tigers lineup again, but he merely handed that task over to Clippard, who entered for the top of the eighth and immediately had to stare down Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The right-hander had only minimal trouble dealing with those two, getting Cabrera to fly out to center and then striking out Fielder on three pitches, but then his night turned far more difficult.

The Tigers' lineup is potent not only because of the power threat it poses top to bottom, but because of the grind-it-out approach nearly every hitter takes to every at-bat. Clippard surely appreciated that after going to a full count against both Dirks and Jhonny Peralta, ultimately walking each batter, and then going to a 2-2 count to Avila.

All told, Clippard threw 34 total pitches in the inning, 10 of them coming with two outs and two strikes on the batter, before he finally struck out Avila to quash the threat and set the stage for Rafael Soriano to earn his 11th save in 12 tries the following inning.

"You're digging deep, for sure," Clippard said. "I know I was tonight. But at the end of the day, it's kind of just pressing the reset button after every pitch and trying to just execute and make your pitches and kind of forget everything that happened before that. That's what I was trying to do tonight. It was obviously a long inning, but I was fortunate to get through it."

Soriano was far more economical in the ninth, needing only 12 pitches to retire the side and secure the victory.

In doing so, the veteran closer ensured his young starter would be credited with yet another win, further cementing his status as the Nationals' best pitcher to date in 2012. Even if Zimmermann is reluctant to call himself the ace of the staff.

"No, any starter that goes out there, they're going to be behind them and give it their all," he said. "Like I've said in the past, I don't think anybody's an ace on this staff. We're all equal. We're all the same. We go out there and try to do our job every day."

Maybe so, but through the first six weeks of this season, nobody has done his job better than Zimmermann.