LAKELAND, Fla. — Livan Hernandez is the Nationals’ opening day starter and, therefore, their defacto No. 1 pitcher. But Thursday night, Jordan Zimmermann showed just why he’ll be considered the best pitcher in the Nationals rotation by season’s end, shutting out the Tigers for five innings and stranding runners in the second, third and fourth innings.
Zimmermann, who credited Ivan Rodriguez for calling the game well, was sitting around 94 m.p.h. with his fastball all night, touching 96 occasionally, and displayed great control, striking out six and walking just one.
“I felt like I could throw (the fastball) wherever I wanted tonight,” Zimmermann said. “Probably the best control I’ve had with that in a long time. Curveball was a little off but I threw a lot more sliders tonight. They’re never both on on the same night, but it’s good to have one most of the time.”
The 5-2 victory was the Nationals’ third win in as many games after a seven-game losing streak, their second crisp pitching performance in a row and was Zimmermann’s fifth scoreless outing in six starts this spring.
“That’s a good lineup he was facing,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He got some strikeouts, did a good job. Took him 90 pitches but that’s because he’s one of those guys, he throws so good that guys are going to be fouling balls off and the count gets up there.”
Zimmermann will likely make one more spring training start, in the Nationals final exhibition contest of the year on Tuesday and is slated to be the team’s No. 2 or No. 3 starter once the season begins.
— Tyler Clippard followed Zimmermann to the mound and picked up two scoreless innings of work, a much-needed boost for the reliever whose spring ERA still sits at 9.72.
Most positive for Clippard was the swings and misses he was getting on high fastballs, a pitch he said he needs to have working for him so everything else can “fall into place.”
Clippard struck out Alex Avila and Austin Jackson in the seventh, while retiring the side in order, and was able to recover after giving up a one-out double to Magglio Ordonez to finish off a scoreless eighth.
It was the second straight scoreless outing for Clippard after he’d allowed nine total earned runs in three of his previous four starts. Clippard, who pitched well in spring last year with a 2.89 ERA but struggled in 2009 to the tune of a 9.00 mark, called tonight a confidence builder.
“I wasn’t worried about getting ready for the season or anything like that,” he said. “Physically I felt good all spring training, it was just a matter of getting comfortable with my mechanics and that’s a process I’ve gone through every spring training. I’ve never been a guy who’s dominated spring training, ever, because it takes me a while to get that feel back.”
— The Nationals have stressed an renewed focus on base running this spring and Ian Desmond provided a perfect execution of it with a leadoff double in the sixth inning. The hit was a bloop into shallow right field that second baseman Will Rhymes and right fielder Magglio Ordonez both lost in the sky.
“The ball that he hit to right field is an example of why you’ve got to run the ball out,” Riggleman said. “If you jog down the line because you’re frustrated, you’ve really just got to work that frustration out by running hard, and he did. Next thing you know he’s on second base.”
He also then provided a poor example of it, getting caught in a run down between third and home 2-6-3-2-1-5-4 — still, it was an aggressive move, one the Nationals would like to see more of.
— In tonight’s battle of prospective center fielders, Rick Ankiel came out on top with a 2-for-3 night that included a double, a walk and scoring a run. Nyjer Morgan was 1-for-4 with three strikeouts and Roger Bernadina was o-for-1 with a long out fly ball out to center field in the eighth.