All-Star break arrives on a high note for Nats

Zimmermann dominant again in series finale

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The pitch left Jordan Zimmermann’s teammates in stitches.

And it showed how far the Washington Nationals’ right-hander has come in the 22 months since Tommy John surgery rebuilt his right elbow.

The slider broke like a Wiffle ball Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park and made Mark Ellis of the Colorado Rockies look foolish. There isn’t much a batter can do against a pitch like that, particularly when coupled with a fastball that touched 95 miles per hour.

“We were laughing,” closer Drew Storen said after the Nationals beat the Rockies 2-0 behind Zimmermann’s start. “That was disgusting.”

Heading into the All-Star break, the victory evened the Nationals‘ record at 46-46. Of the positives from the season’s first half, Zimmermann’s emergence is at the forefront. He is part of a rotation that steadied the team through Stephen Strasburg’s absence, Ryan Zimmerman’s injury, Jayson Werth’s season-long slump and manager Jim Riggleman’s abrupt resignation.

After throwing 6.1 scoreless innings Sunday, Zimmermann has 14 quality starts in 18 tries. If his run support was even average — he has the National League’s third-worst — he’d likely be in Phoenix for Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

Zimmermann’s slider was the key to his outing against the Rockies and, in the bigger picture, his resurgent season. That a surgically repaired elbow could handle the strain of more sliders may seem counter-intuitive. But 24.1 percent of Zimmermann’s pitches this season have been sliders, according to FanGraphs.com. That’s a notable jump from his previous high of 16.1 percent in 2009.

“My slider was probably the best it’s ever been,” Zimmermann said. “I felt like I could throw it whenever and wherever I wanted to.”

That allowed Zimmermann to strike out four of the first seven batters he faced and scatter four hits. He moved the ball in and out of the strike zone and kept the Rockies off balance, which helped the three relievers manager Davey Johnson summoned to finish off the win.

What’s more, Zimmermann is throwing those sliders almost a mile an hour harder than he did before the surgery.

“He’s so clean and crisp,” Storen said. “His motion isn’t very violent. It’s nice and smooth. The ball really pops when he throws it.”

The offense lacking in so many of Zimmermann’s starts this season (the Nationals scored two runs in his last three losses), came through Sunday. Barely. Roger Bernadina’s broken-bat single into right field scored the first run, and Rick Ankiel’s home run in the eighth added another.

The biggest question is how many more times Zimmermann will see the mound before season’s end. The Nationals‘ plan to limit him to around 160 innings seems a challenge, given how well he’s pitching.

On Sunday, Johnson pulled his young ace after 88 pitches. With the game-time temperature at 88 degrees, Johnson didn’t want Zimmermann making a late-game mistake because of the heat.

But next year?

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