There are perhaps no other three words in baseball that can have as strong an impact on a player as Tommy John surgery, a procedure that can sideline a pitcher for at least a year.
After pitching only 31 innings in seven games for the Washington Nationals last year, Jordan Zimmermann is healthy and confident this season after overcoming the procedure to replace a ligament in his pitching elbow that sidelined him in August 2009.
"I feel awesome," Zimmermann said Tuesday. "For me to come back [and pitch] every fifth day is a big confidence boost for me. I know I can do it."
The 24-year old right-hander will take the ball for the Nationals on Thursday night at Nationals Park against the Philadelphia Phillies' second ace, Cliff Lee.
Facing a lefty such as Lee undoubtedly will be the biggest challenge for the Nationals starter thus far in the young season.
"It's going to be tough," Zimmermann said. "He's unbelievable. I'm going to go out there and give it my all, and we'll see what happens."
Zimmermann went into spring training hopeful that his arm would be able to take the wear and tear a starting pitcher faces. He finished with a 3.91 ERA and 15 strikeouts over 23 innings in the Grapefruit League.
"Coming to spring training this year after the big [winter] layoff was a big test to see how the arm would react," Zimmermann said. "It came back perfect. I feel really good right now."
Zimmermann has started the season strong with a 1-1 record and a 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings. He picked up his first win Friday against the New York Mets.
Ivan Rodriguez caught in the 6-2 victory, and what he saw behind the plate was "very good."
"Since he came back, he's getting better and better," Rodriguez said. "His command is there; his velocity is there. He's attacking the strike zone pretty good, and I think he's pitching pain-free. It's just a matter of [continuing] doing what he is doing, [to] still attack the strike zone and get guys out and don't try and do too much."
It took Zimmermann 99 pitches to get through 5 1/3 innings against the Mets, but the righty said while he aims to keep the pitch count lower in the future, he didn't feel fatigued and was satisfied with the outing. He relied heavily on his fastball and slider as opposed to the changeup, a pitch he says he is still working on.
But Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty has no complaints about Zimmermann's performance thus far.
"I'm happy with where he's at," McCatty said. "He didn't have to use [the changeup] that much [against the Mets], but he'll use it when he needs to. Everybody talks about 'Oh, you know you got to use all four pitches.' You don't have to. He was doing a great job [Friday] throwing his slider and throwing his fastball."
McCatty is confident in his starter against a Phillies pitching staff and an offense that had many analysts talking playoffs and even a World Series appearance before the season started.
However, the pitching coach said Zimmermann will be focused once he gets to the mound Thursday night.
"I don't think he's worried about Cliff Lee," McCatty said. "He's got to face the Phillies [hitters]. For me I hate the phrase: 'Well, he's got to pitch against. ... ' You can't worry about that. You start worrying about how many runs you're going to give up because Cliff Lee is pitching, you're just putting yourself into a corner. Go out and try to keep them from scoring."
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