The balls came screaming back at Jordan Zimmermann, almost with as much speed as he’d fired them at Kurt Suzuki’s target seconds earlier.
The right-hander stuck his glove out in defense. He knocked one down. He watched another bound past. He bent his body backward, bracing for the impact of a ball or avoiding a shard of a bat.
In the Washington Nationals’ 5-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox that secured them the series victory, Zimmermann spent parts of his seven strong innings of work dodging bullets in the infield.
“Ah, you’ve got to be prepared for that,” the Nationals’ stoic right-hander said with a slight smile and a shrug.
“If you go inside, you know you’re going to break some bats. Sometimes they come flying at you.”
Zimmermann’s demeanor was upbeat as he spoke with his right arm encased in ice. His point was clear.
The balls that came firing back at him? They were ground outs or line outs. They were handled. They didn’t do any damage, to him or the boxscore, so they could shoot them back at him all night long if they wanted.
The Nationals beat the White Sox Wednesday night for reasons that go beyond a few balls put in play on broken bats.
Bryce Harper hit a breathtaking home run, 420 feet down the right field foul line, in the fourth inning to open the Nationals’ offense.
Shortstop Ian Desmond was 3-for-4 with two doubles and a triple to give him six extra-base hits in his last seven knocks.
Second baseman Danny Espinosa, coming up with Desmond on base in front of him three times, stroked an RBI-single to right field in the fourth, and an RBI-double in that same direction two innings later.
They rapped out 11 hits, and chased White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd after 5 1/3 innings when he gave up nine of those hits. The only position player in the lineup who didn’t pick up at least one hit was catcher Kurt Suzuki, and he was walked three times.
“Our whole lineup is loaded with good hitters,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I like what I saw.”
But when pressed for the key to a game as clean as any they’ve played on the young season, several Nationals players pointed back to Zimmermann. His quick pace and propensity for pounding the strike zone kept them sharp on defense, and his effectiveness got them back in the dugout to give him some room to work with.
“It starts with Jordan,” Desmond said, snapping his fingers to indicate the rapid-fire nature of the right-hander’s pace. “I was back up, I was back up, I was back up. That keeps me more locked in than standing out there thinking about the things I’m doing (at the plate), and then having to come back in and try to do the things I was just thinking of on the field on defense.”
Zimmermann, who opened the game pumping 96-mph fastballs, scattered seven hits, allowed both runs on RBI-ground outs, walked none and struck out four. Of the 21 outs he recorded, 11 of them came on the ground — a few of those comebackers he expertly dodged or knocked down. Four outs came in the air, but three were secured by infielders on shallow pop ups. He benefitted from two double plays.
“I was just sticking with the fastball pretty much all game,” Zimmermann said, attributing his early heat to the summer-like conditions. “Mixed in a handful of changeups in there, some sliders and a couple curves, but for the most part, we were just going fastball…. It was just one of those games where it felt good and I felt like I could locate it at any time so we stuck with it.”
“He’s not a guy who’s going to nibble, nibble,” Espinosa said. “He’s going to pound the zone and he’s going to go after guys. He doesn’t give in to anybody.”
Zimmermann did not pitch into the eighth inning once in 2012 and he’s only done it on one occasion in his major league career, a complete game against the Los Angeles Angels that he lost 1-0 in 2011. But Johnson has said he will push his young starters more this season. That he will ask them to shoulder more of a load.
At 90 pitches after seven innings, on an unseasonably warm April night in the District, it seemed there could’ve been no better time for Zimmermann to tread into the somewhat uncharted eighth. As Zimmermann descended the dugout steps following the seventh inning, though, Johnson approached him. He told him he’d pitched a good game, and that he was done.
“Very rarely last year did I take him over 100 (pitches),” Johnson said. “I’ll go further with him… but I’m just not going to push him at that point. I’ve got the people I want coming in (from the bullpen). He’s made a lot of great strides since 2011. He’s gone further, seems like, every year.”
Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano closed things out for the Nationals, securing Zimmermann’s win.
The night got off to an inauspicious start when the umpires phoned roughly 40 minutes before the first pitch to say that they were stuck in ridiculous D.C. traffic. Cherry blossom season has descended upon the district, and the Nationals were aware that an immigration rally at the Capitol was congesting things further.
Zimmermann didn’t warm up until later than originally planned, adjusting to accommodate the umpires delay. He shrugged it off.
“They just said we were going to be a little delayed, be prepared to sit around for a little bit,” Zimmermann said. ” (So I) sat around.”
The Nationals, too, showed no ill effects from the change to their routines, seemingly taking their cue from the right-hander.
“I’ve got no problem with it,” Desmond said. “I’ve been stuck in traffic many a time here in D.C. I’m surprised they got here as fast as they did. It’s always an adventure.”