Nats rally late, but stingy Jordan Zimmermann still starved for run support

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For the Washington Nationals, the starting rotation has an order and a rhythm. Stephen Strasburg is the headliner. Gio Gonzalez is carving out a niche for himself as the happiest, most relaxed pitcher most of his teammates and coaches have ever seen. Edwin Jackson is the oft-traded, $11-million man, and Ross Detwiler is the power lefty who’s just scratched the surface of his potential.

Then there’s Jordan Zimmermann, the soft-spoken 25-year-old right-hander who rarely garners the accolades or attention of his rotation mates. All Zimmermann does is take the ball every fifth day and throw what always seems to be at least seven innings of shutout or one-run or two-run baseball. And get miniscule run support.

As Zimmermann was methodically working through the Houston Astros lineup Wednesday night, the movie he’s watched countless times from the mound was on replay. On this night, an eventual 3-2 victory, the runs would eventually come. On this night, they’d get the situational hitting they’ve often lacked and work the opposing team’s bullpen to take a lead in the eighth inning or later for the fifth time in 13 games.

It would happen after Zimmermann had left the game following seven innings in which he allowed one run, four hits, walked none and struck out three in just 86 pitches. But, the way the 10-3 Nationals — owners of the best record in the National League — saw it, at least it happened.

“I was worried that he was going to have another great game and get an ‘L’,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He hasn’t been getting hardly any [run support] at all. But, he keeps pitching like that, he’s going to get a whole bunch of wins.”

Zimmermann was the Nationals‘ best pitcher in 2011, his first full season after Tommy John surgery. But what felled him most often was one pitch left out over the plate at the end of an outing or one mistake he couldn’t get back.

With the Nationals scoring just 2.6 runs per game while he was on the mound, those mistakes became glaring and his 8-11 win-loss record became deceptive. The Nationals wanted to see maturation out of Zimmermann this season: They wanted to see him take control of his outings, regardless of how the bats were behind him. In the 21 innings Zimmermann has pitched this season, he’s been dominant. The Nationals have scored two total runs.

“I’ve seen it,” Johnson said of that maturation. “He’s taken total command of the mound. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to do. And it’s fun watching him.”

Roger Bernadina took him off the hook Wednesday with an RBI double after Zimmermann had thrown his final pitch in the seventh. They scored two more after he’d departed, loading the bases on the Astros bullpen via walks from Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche sandwiched around a single by Ryan Zimmerman, and watching the tying run come home with a bases-loaded walk to Jayson Werth. Wilson Ramos’ sacrifice fly to center field, on a pitch he admitted he just missed, brought home the game winner.

“When you’re always in close games, I mean, a microscope’s on you,” Werth said. “You could sit here and analyze the numbers all you want. The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to score him some runs.”

The Nationals have played seven one-run games already this season, but with a 12-man pitching staff that has a 1.92 ERA, they’re 5-2. Zimmermann’s certainly not alone, but has a 1.29 ERA this season and zero wins.

“I really have confidence in our offense,” Johnson said. “I really do. … I think it’s going to eventually all come together, and I’m not going to worry about it. We’re doing enough to go along. The pitchers have got their mindset: ‘Can’t get beat if you don’t let them score any.’ That part’s working good. The offense is just barely getting enough.”

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