- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

It’s perhaps a measure of flattery, a backhanded compliment, that Jordan Zimmermann can have a subpar night and still have his manager and his teammates offer plaudits for the way he pitched.

In the Nationals’ 6-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday, Zimmermann was sharp with every one of his pitches, Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta said. He’s fun to play behind, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, because he “gets it.” He can have a bad night and still keep his team into the game well into the sixth inning, Acta marveled.

“I think this kid is going to be very good for us for years to come,” Acta said. “We’re thrilled. If this is going to be a bad start for him, going 5 2/3 and being hurt by real good hitters on mistakes, we’re happy.”

Zimmermann, though, still has made only three major league starts, which means he hasn’t figured out how to traverse the gap between a good night with a few mistakes and the kind of singular brilliance that sends a hitter like Albert Pujols away shaking his head rather than rounding the bases with a home run.

Against the Cardinals, Zimmermann showed he’s still on the other side of that expanse, and Pujols put the 22-year-old in his place.

Had Pujols, Chris Duncan and Ryan Ludwick not torched Zimmermann on pitches that missed their location by a hair, the rookie right-hander might have come out with his third win. Instead, he got a pointed reminder of what the game’s gifted hitters can do with a little leeway.

“Up here, they don’t miss hardly as much as they do [in the minor leagues],” Zimmermann said. “You can’t be making those mistakes up here.”

Zimmermann (2-1) allowed five runs on eight hits, with almost all the damage coming from the middle of the Cardinals’ order. Pujols, Duncan and Ludwick - the Cardinals’ 3-4-5 hitters - went 6-for-9 with three homers and five RBI against Zimmermann. He gave up two hits and no runs to the rest of the St. Louis lineup.

He threw four straight fastballs to Pujols in the first inning, all on the outer half of the plate, and then tried to bring a fastball inside. He left it just a little too far over the middle, Pujols crushed it well into the left-field seats.

Duncan’s two-run homer in the fourth was on a belt-high fastball. Ludwick hit his in the sixth off a hanging slider on a 1-2 count, a pitch Zimmermann was hoping he could freeze the hitter with for a strikeout.

“You don’t want to strike out good hitters looking on breaking balls,” Acta said. “Most of the time, they’re not going to do it. They’re ready to swing if the ball’s over the plate. … Every time he missed, it was hit for extra bases.”

While Zimmermann’s miscues were hammered by Cardinals hitters, the Nationals could do little against Todd Wellemeyer, a 30-year-old right-hander with OK stuff but nothing arresting enough to dominate a lineup.

Asked what made Wellemeyer tough, Zimmerman scoffed somewhat and said: “I don’t know. I mean, he made good pitches when he had to. We hit a couple balls right at people, but you’ve got to give him credit. He made pitches when he needed to.”

That simple survival tactic was one area where Zimmermann was lacking Friday night. But no one in the Nationals’ clubhouse was worried he won’t rediscover it soon.

“He made three or four bad pitches,” said Zimmerman, who extended his Nationals-record hitting streak to 20 games with a third-inning single. “A good team like that, a veteran team, they don’t miss them. … He’s very mentally tough for how old he is, and I think he’s going to be good for a long, long time.”

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