LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The process for Jordan Zimmermann to get to the point he was at on Friday night, throwing his changeup with confidence and conviction, was not a quick one. As he put it in the bowels of Champion Stadium “it’s been about three years.”
But in the Nationals’ 6-5 victory over the Braves, Zimmermann came out of his three innings of work with effusive praise for the pitch and how strong he felt with it against a Braves lineup that featured at least six of their regulars.
“It feels really, really good right now,” Zimmermann said. “I wanted to throw it about every pitch if I could, but I know that wasn’t the right thing to do.”
“It just adds to his arsenal,” said manager Davey Johnson, who was equally pleased with what he saw from the right-hander. “I mean that’s a great pitch. Basically, (he throws) pretty hard. All his pitches are good, but when you can get them off the hard stuff on something like that, I mean hitters were taking funny swings off it.”
Zimmermann threw his changeup just 2.2 percent of the time in 2012 and when he went home to Wisconsin for the offseason he knew it had to be one of the things he focused on. So he did. He threw it when he played catch and he found that when he gets more extension on the ball he can slow it down to where he wants it to be.
But even at the start of camp, his confidence wasn’t where it appeared to be Friday night. After his first bullpen session of the spring, when he’d thrown some so good that even catcher Wilson Ramos was fooled, Zimmermann was still a little hesitant to praise the pitch.
“It’s better,” Zimmermann said two weeks ago. “It’s not great, but it’s better. I threw some really bad ones (in the session) too, but there was a few that were pretty good. I’m happy with the progress, it’s just going to take a lot more work.”
In his first start, Zimmermann’s changeups were clocked around 83-84 mph. On Friday he was throwing them in the 83-85 mph range, according to the stadium radar gun, which is just where he wants the pitch to be. He fooled several Braves hitters.
Zimmermann threw three to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman in his first at-bat and got him to fly out to center field. He threw two fastballs to Dan Uggla and then got the second baseman swinging on a changeup for strike three. He struck out four overall, including B.J. Upton on three pitches (fastball, slider, fastball) to end the third inning and his night.
Nationals’ rehabilitation coach Mark Grater kidded with Zimmermann recently and told him he has a “February changeup.”
“Today is March 1,” Zimmerman said. “So I guess it hasn’t gone away. Hopefully it sticks with me for a little while.”
There is still work to be done with his thought process as he continues to work the pitch into his arsenal. Zimmermann threw a curveball to Juan Francisco in the second inning, and then followed it up with a changeup — slowing Francisco’s bat down with the first pitch and then coming back at him with another slow pitch. Francisco hit a single up the middle on the changeup.
“It’s definitely learning when to throw it, the right times,” Zimmermann said. “That’s the next step.
“It was obviously not good last year, and I didn’t throw it nearly enough. I really worked on it a lot this offseason. It felt good when I was throwing it this offseason. I kept working on it, working on it. The big thing for me, I was just cutting it off instead of reaching out and extending. That’s the big thing, where you get the speed drop. When I was cutting it off, I had no control and it was way too hard. Obviously, it’s a lot slower now. I have a lot better feel for it.”
Zimmermann finished the night with 49 pitches and all but 10 of them were strikes. It was a high amount of strikes, higher perhaps than Zimmermann would like to throw in a normal game. He acknowledged as much.
“I was just trying to attack,” he said. “During the season I’m going to throw more balls but I wanted to try working on sitting on the corner and, obviously, throwing everything for strikes. If I get two strikes during the season I’m going to throw some balls and mix it up but I was just trying to get some work in… I’m very pleased with this outing.”