NEW YORK -- In the progression for Jordan Zimmermann from Nationals' heralded prospect, to Tommy John surgery survivor and back to bona-fide major league right-hander, his performance Friday afternoon on a cool, cloudy day in New York City may well go down as one of the seminal moments.
Facing the Mets as they opened Citi Field for the 2011 season, Zimmermann allowed just two runs through 5 1/3 innings of work, put the Nationals on the board with a two-out, two RBI single in the second inning and threw 99 pitches to help the Nationals top the Mets, 6-2.
Perhaps most importantly for Zimmermann was that even after throwing 91 pitches through five innings with his surgically repaired right elbow, the Nationals had enough confidence in him to send him back out in the sixth to face the heart of the Mets' order in David Wright and Carlos Beltran, helping him reach a watershed mark in his pitch count.
The last time Zimmermann threw 99 pitches or more in a game at the major league level was July 18, 2009 -- his final outing before undergoing the ligament reconstruction surgery.
"We're really trying to keep as little stress on that arm as we can because it's a valuable arm," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman following his team's third win of the season and second in a row.
"(Zimmermann) was very composed," he added. "Nothing seems to bother him. He just makes pitches. They've got a good lineup and they put the pressure on him but he made the necessary pitches when he had to."
Zimmermann, who is not on a strict pitch count but will likely be held to an innings limit this season, came out and pumped the strike zone with fastballs in the 93-94 mph range to start the game. Working his four-seam fastball in quite often, Zimmermann got four of the first seven batters he faced to strikeout, two on the fastball and two more, Willie Harris and Brad Emaus on two of the 20 sliders he unleashed during the outing.
"I'm trying to get better every time out," Zimmermann said. "And just soak in as much as I can when I'm out there and get in situations where, the first time you've been in a situation like that and work through it, the next time it happens you're more prepared. Every start's big for me."
On the day, Zimmermann, who has four pitches in his repertoire -- fastball, slider, curveball and changeup -- needed to call on his changeup just twice, using mainly his fastball, complimented by the slider and the curve.
"That's how good he is," said catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who helped give Zimmermann's ability for the win a little breathing room with his first hit of the season, a two-RBI single into right field in the eighth to break open what was a one-run game. "He's got another pitch on him that we can use and we didn't use it today and he still did a tremendous job."
But while Zimmermann was solid and continues to progress, now more than 18 months removed from the surgery, he wasn't entirely dominant. The Mets had baserunners in every inning but the second, when Zimmermann struck out the side, and he escaped only having allowed two runs -- a feat manager Jim Riggleman credited partly to the Nationals' outfield positioning that helped record 10 fly ball outs.
That wasn't a factor once the game was turned over the bullpen which continues to improve and impress each time they're able to put up consecutive scoreless innings like they did again Friday with 3 1/3 more to add to the tally.
Tyler Clippard, who was preceded on the mound by Doug Slaten and Chad Gaudin, was asked again to step into a situation with the tying and go-ahead runs on third and second base respectively and again produced, striking out Jose Reyes with two impressive changeups and getting the groundball he needed out of Angel Pagan to end the inning.
In his last two outings combined, Clippard has thrown 30 pitches and only six of them have been balls.
"The way that he pitched Reyes was unbelievable," Rodriguez said. "Those two or three changeups that we threw to him, it was nasty."
Drew Storen and Todd Coffey each followed with a scoreless inning, giving the bullpen a run of 9 2/3 unblemished frames, to close the game and put the Nationals in position to pick up their first series win of the season on Saturday night.
"Our bullpen is pretty solid," Rodriguez said. "Those two kids, (Clippard and Storen) they're pretty amazing what they do coming in from the bullpen."
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