After Jordan Zimmermann had completed arguably the most dominant pitching performance of his major league career, he smacked his glove, high-fived his catcher and finally cracked a smile. Perhaps the significance of the moment escaped him.
A 1-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds was his. The first shutout of his career. His second complete game in his last three starts. A 91-pitch masterpiece in which a Nationals pitcher held the Reds to one hit for the second consecutive night to earn them a dubious place in Queen City history.
It’d been 113 years since any team had done that to the Reds — and this version of them possesses one of the National League’s best offenses.
As he walked off the mound, Zimmermann approached his pitching coach who, in another life, completed 30 percent of the games he started in the major leagues. He smiled again.
“What’ve I got left?” he asked Steve McCatty. “A hundred to catch you?”
“Since I’ve been here, that’s the best-pitched game I’ve seen,” said manager Davey Johnson, who sat in awe of what his right-hander from Wisconsin did on this cool April evening.
“Just a phenomenal game. Fun for me to watch him.”
On this night it mattered not that the Nationals’ offense was held to just six hits and one run of their own. That a triple by Bryce Harper, which might’ve been a double by almost any other hitter, turned into their only output against Homer Bailey when Jayson Werth drove him in. It mattered not, because at every turn Zimmermann shut down the Reds. Early. Often. Repeatedly.
Zimmermann threw 59 of his 91 pitches for strikes. He pounded the zone so overwhelmingly that when the game was over he’d averaged just more than one ball per batter. He needed 60 pitches to get through six innings. Only 66 before he was starting the eighth inning. Six of his nine frames required 10 pitches or fewer.
This a Reds team with two regulars who average well above four pitches per plate appearance in Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, and as a team entered the game seeing an average of 3.83 pitches per plate appearance. If they’d been just average on Friday night, Zimmermann would’ve needed 115 pitches to get through nine.
“I’m just throwing strikes,” the usually stoic Zimmermann said. “Trying to get ahead of guys, not trying to get deep in the counts and letting them put the ball in play. I don’t care about strikeouts. I don’t want to walk anyone.”
Zimmermann placed this performance among his top three in the major leagues, adding it to his complete game last week over the Miami Marlins, and his eight-inning complete game against the Los Angeles Angels in June of 2011.
But against the Marlins, an inferior offensive unit when compared to one like the Reds, he gave up three runs and six hits. Against the Angels, without any run support, he lost 1-0.
With his low pitch count, the amount of zeroes lighting up the scoreboard and the simple fact that he threw nearly 65 percent of his pitches for strikes, this one stood alone.
“He earned every right to go all the way,” Johnson said. “And it was fun to see.”
On this night Zimmermann walked one, catcher Corky Miller with two outs in the eighth inning. Using six straight four-seam fastballs and then dropping in an 86-mph slider, Zimmermann got Jack Hannahan swinging to end the inning and he walked into the dugout having thrown just 86 pitches.
The only other baserunners came via an error on first baseman Adam LaRoche in the fifth and a soft single to center field by one-time Nationals farmhand Xavier Paul to open the third. Even when he took a hard ground ball off his left wrist in the seventh inning, he waved off trainers immediately. There was no way he was coming out, even before McCatty joked with him that ‘Hits will stay there forever; bruises go away.’
In the ninth, when the phone rang in the bullpen, Jim Lett had to call Craig Stammen’s name multiple times before the right-hander realized the call had been for him — if anyone, he figured maybe Rafael Soriano — and it was just a request to get some work in. No one else would finish this game.
“I thought (Zimmermann) was unbelievable,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who has now guided the Nationals’ pitching staff through 26 innings allowing just one run.
“We’re really attacking guys with the heater, and it all depends on how his fastball’s doing… We used a lot of that tonight, 95-96 mph out of the gate, we were sticking with the guns.”
In the dugout, as the game wore on and Zimmermann continued to mix in all four of his pitches with impressive effectiveness, he joked with his teammates. He and Suzuki sat together on the bench and talked about different at-bats. It was perhaps as loose as the catcher had ever seen the 26-year-old right-hander.
When he came to the plate with one out in the eighth inning for his at-bat, the fans at Nationals Park stood and cheered.
“He deserves it,” McCatty said. “Ross (Detwiler) deserves it, too. They’ve got (Stephen Strasburg) and (Gio Gonzalez) with the notoriety… 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.”
It was the first time all season the Nationals had shutout an opponent not named the Marlins. Coming on the heels of another stellar performance by Gonzalez a day earlier, it did not go unnoticed.
“My guys, if they attack hitters like they have the last two days, it’s gonna be a problem,” Johnson said. “I don’t care good hitting team, bad hitting team… You’re feeling strong all the way through that game.”