Within Jordan Zimmermann’s game, there are not a lot of frills.
The Washington Nationals’ right-hander is low on flash, in his demeanor and in the way he pitches. His starts bring with them a certain natural rhythm. Get the ball, throw it. Get the ball, throw it. Little time or energy is wasted, and most often what he throws are strikes.
Over the years, though, while Zimmermann’s stoic nature has changed little, his game has evolved. Just how much is an open-ended question as he continues to surge to the forefront in any conversation about the game’s best pitchers.
But to answer the question in a tangible way, in the here and now, one needn’t look further than the eighth inning of the Nationals’ 5-1 victory over the Rockies on Thursday night — a victory that again brought them to the .500 mark.
One needn’t see more than the fact that, in the game’s most crucial situation and with the dangerous Carlos Gonzalez standing at the plate, Zimmermann reached into his arsenal, discarded the fastball that had touched 97 mph on this night, passed by the slider and ignored the curveball.
He threw a changeup. Shook catcher Kurt Suzuki off to get to the changeup. And it worked.
“He’s going to throw what he what he wants to throw. He trusts it,” said pitching coach Steve McCatty, who used to joke Zimmermann’s been working on that changeup for about as long as he’s been a professional baseball player. “He’s growing as a pitcher. When he needed to, he made a real quality pitch with it.”
“I went with a fastball up and he was pretty much right on it,” Zimmermann said. “I figured if I get a changeup anywhere close he’s going to swing at it. It was down bottom corner and it was a pretty good pitch. (Last year) I’m probably going slider in, or another fastball. Being able to whip (the changeup) out late in the game is pretty big.”
He finished his night with four fastballs, either 94- or 95-mph, to strike out Michael Cuddyer.
“What a game he pitched,” said manager Davey Johnson, who said an error by second baseman Anthony Rendon to set up the two-on, one-out situation in the eighth “nearly gave him a heart attack.”
“We needed it. An 11-inning game last night and all my guys, I’ve been using them a lot late in close ballgames just to stay close and give our offense a chance to win it. (Zimmermann tonight) was a godsend.”
Zimmermann threw eight innings and allowed just one run, an unearned one at that, in the Nationals’ win. He gave up just six hits, walked one and struck out nine. He also spent his entire night inhabiting the strike zone.
Eighty-five of his 112 pitches were strikes. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that made him just the third Nationals pitcher to throw at least 85 strikes in an outing, joining only Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez, who did it in 2005.
He did not take a single batter to a three-ball count until there was one out in the fifth inning. After the fourth, Zimmermann had thrown 49 pitches. All but eight of them were strikes.
“He’s always going to throw strikes,” said Suzuki, one of six starting position players with at least one hit as they pounded out five runs. “It seems like he’s been pitching like this all year. He’s had a couple of hiccups here and there. But this is Jordan.”
“I want to be in the zone,” Zimmermann said. “They’re an aggressive team. It kind of works into my favor. Throw some first-pitch strikes, let them hit the ball. It was definitely a good win and I needed that one after last outing.”
The way Zimmermann makes it sound, his previous outing was a complete abomination. It wasn’t, he simply didn’t hold the five-run lead he was given. And the Nationals won the game anyway.
Still, it was an aberration and one Zimmermann has worked to avoid. Once a pitcher who’d hit a wall late in starts and see one mistake ruin an otherwise sterling day, now Zimmermann often dominates from his first pitch until his last. During a season in which the Nationals have wavered and stumbled and struggled, Zimmermann has largely remained a constant.
His 2.26 ERA is the fifth-best mark in the National League and the seventh-best mark in the major leagues. His All-Star candidacy grows with each outing.
Within his own clubhouse they seem to have no doubt. Multiple players, asked about whether or not Zimmermann should earn a ticket to the Midsummer Classic in New York next month, answered with “absolutely.” Zimmermann himself said he hasn’t given the possibility much thought.
“I think he should probably start the game,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose 10th home run of the season, a solo shot in the second, opened the scoring for the Nationals’ offense. “If I was the manager, that’s the horse I’d want in there.”