The Washington Times - March 17, 2012, 05:12PM

VIERA, Fla. — Progress for pitchers in spring training is sometimes difficult to chart. 

A pitcher can give up four earned runs off seven hits, for example, and talk about how strong he felt, how good his control was and how pleased he was with the outing. He can throw three scoreless and talk about his shaky command. 

SEE RELATED:


Often times we use pitch count, or number of innings as a tangible measure of how much stronger a pitcher was from their last time out, as they build toward the ultimate goal of being season-ready when the lights come on April 5.

But after listening to Jordan Zimmermann this afternoon, I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at this opening statements from his first three starts.

Here’s Zimmermann after his first start, an outing in which he threw three innings, allowed just three hits and no runs, walked one batter and hit one. He struck out three. 

“I had a rough time locating the fastball today,” Zimmermann said on March 7. “But, I threw some good ones when I needed to and the breaking pitches were pretty good.”

And here’s what he had to say after his second, where he went 3 2/3 innings but allowed four earned runs on seven hits and a walk and struck out none. 

“I felt better today than I did the last start,” he said on March 12. “Fastball command was definitely there today. I felt like I could throw it wherever I wanted to.” 

Zimmermann’s slider that day was particularly strong and he noted he got perhaps his first swing-and-miss ever on a changeup. The results weren’t sterling, as they were the first time out, but the feeling was more positive. 

Saturday afternoon, Zimmermann turned in four strong innings where he threw 72 pitches — 50 of them strikes — and scattered six hits, including four with two outs, but held the Miami Marlins scoreless. His slider was strong and his fastball was even better, getting Gaby Sanchez, for one, to strikeout on one inside in the second inning after Sanchez looped the slider for a single in the first.

And here were his initial thoughts:

“It’s getting better and better every day,” Zimmermann said. “I felt I did better today than I did the last time out. I had really good control with all my pitches and I felt pretty good.”

Zimmermann spends his offseasons in his native Wisconsin and even with the mild winter that coated most of the country, it’s still a bit too chilly to get out and throw the way guys who live in Florida and Arizona and the like do. So it’s not surprising for Zimmermann to take a little time to work his way back into shape to be game-ready and that’s where the improved control comes in and is evident with each outing.

Zimmermann is on track to make about three more starts before the Nationals head north to start the season. After the performance he had on Saturday, that sounds just about right for the right-hander.

“Zim was great,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I mean, he threw the ball exceptionally well. He looked really strong there at the end, too… He was a little wild but it was hard, great stuff.”

Zimmermann was unconcerned by the two-out hits he surrendered, including two in the first inning, one in the third and one in the fourth. On all three occasions, he was able to bear down and finish off the inning. He attributed the hits, of which few were struck well, to the fact that he wasn’t pitching Saturday entirely the way he would in a regular-season game. 

The goal here is to continue building up innings. Four was his goal and Zimmermann wasn’t about to waste pitches. So instead of throwing a 1-2 pitch or an 0-2 pitch a little more off the plate to see if he could get a guy to chase, he continued to pound the zone to get them to put the ball in play. It didn’t work a few times as the Marlins were fouling off pitches often — an indication of how good Zimmermann’s stuff was on its own — and thus his pitch count was still a bit higher than he’d have preferred. 

“It’s kind of hard to get early contact when they’re not hitting it solid — but it’s a good sign,” Zimmermann said.

“Next time out I’ll probably try to throw strikes again but maybe when I get two strikes I’ll move off a little farther and see if I can get a couple guys to chase. But, in spring training, I just want to throw strikes and be around the plate and get quick outs.”

Last year, the Nationals felt Zimmermann, who has impeccable control and walked only 31 batters in all of 2011, was often times throwing too many strikes — leaving a pitch in the zone when he should have been painting with it more on the corners. The idea was for him not to give in and allow the hitter anything close.

But Johnson had no issues with Zimmermann’s high strike totals on Saturday — especially because of the strong indication he got from all of the foul balls, of which there were at least 11.

Hard to center on somebody who has that much movement and is throwing that hard,” Johnson said. “I thought his stuff was great.”