- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An analysis of the MRI on Jordan Zimmermann’s right elbow detected a torn ligament, and two doctors are recommending the Washington Nationals rookie pitcher have Tommy John surgery that would sideline him for 12 to 18 months.

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday evening that Birmingham, Ala., orthopedist James Andrews confirmed team doctor Wiemi Douoguih’s diagnosis of a torn ulnar collateral ligament that requires major surgery. The MRI will be sent to a third doctor, Lewis Yocum of Los Angeles, for confirmation, but the Nationals expect the same recommendation and that surgery will take place soon.

“It’s very disappointing to a great kid who has great ability and pitched a hell of a rookie season for us,” Rizzo said. “It’s disappointing. It’s a step backward for Jordan, but I think it’s a small step.”

Zimmermann, 23, entered the season as Washington’s top-rated prospect and lived up to the billing during his first three months in the majors. He wound up going 3-5 with a 4.63 ERA in 16 starts but showed vast improvement as he gained experience, posting a 3.18 ERA in his last eight starts.

It wasn’t until an off-day throwing session late last month that Zimmermann felt discomfort in his throwing elbow. The Nationals elected to be cautious with their second-round pick from the 2007 draft, placing him on the 15-day disabled list to allow time to rest. He remained on schedule after pitching 3 1/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Aug. 4 but continued to experience discomfort and was subsequently shut down.

Zimmermann, who once pitched with a broken jaw at tiny Wisconsin-Stevens Point, isn’t sure how long he had been pitching with this injury. He admitted feeling some “stiffness” before the All-Star break but doesn’t know whether that was a sign of the tear.

“I don’t know if I was just pitching with it for a while,” he said. “I kind of wish I knew when things went wrong myself. But I’ve gotta get the surgery done. I’m sure everything will be just fine. I’ll rehab hard and hopefully be back ahead of schedule.”

Typical recovery time from ligament replacement surgery is 12 to 18 months, and countless major league pitchers have come back from the procedure, which has a success rate around 85 percent.

That didn’t make news of Andrews’ diagnosis easy to receive… or to deliver.

“I’ve released players. I’ve fired managers and pitching coaches and employees before. This was really one of the most difficult announcements I ever had to tell a kid,” Rizzo said. “He’s a special kid. A lot of guys come back from Tommy John, and they go on to pitch in All-Star Games and win Cy Youngs, and this kid is going to be one of them. I’m sure of that. His stuff is too good, his work ethic is too good and his character’s too good not to. But it was very difficult.”

Zimmermann, who said he plans to stay with the club while recovering, has sought advice from teammate Sean Burnett, who missed all of 2005 after undergoing Tommy John surgery but has returned to become an effective reliever.

“I was pretty shocked and shook up,” Zimmermann said. “It sucks. It’s a long period. But if you work hard, you come back stronger than ever. I talked to Burnett, and he said it’s the best thing he ever had done to him. It’s a good thing. It sucks now, but in the long run, it’s gonna be a good thing.”

The loss of Zimmermann for the rest of this season - and most likely all of 2010 - will be a devastating blow to an organization that has been attempting to build a contender around a young starting rotation. With Zimmermann and Scott Olsen (torn labrum) both out for the year, Washington is left with only de facto ace John Lannan as a proven member of the rotation.

Now the franchise will have to find another starter to take the place previously reserved for Zimmermann.

“That’s the reason why you say you never have enough pitching prospects,” Rizzo said. “I think we’re fortunate here that we’ve got seven or eight really good young starting pitching prospects. … He’s our brightest star, and he’s going to be down for a while.

“But he’s going to be back, and we’re going to be that much stronger when he gets back.”

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