HOUSTON — They call him Mr. Consistency and they praise him for the repetitive nature in which he performs, with little deviation, every five days. Over the course of the season's first four-plus months, Nationals manager Davey Johnson has called Jordan Zimmermann a "man out there," "a bulldog," and, after his performance Thursday night, "a bear."
Zimmermann and the Nationals shut out the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night in a 5-0 sweep-clinching victory. And as he zipped through the lineup of the worst team in baseball with surgical precision for six innings, he added another line to an already-impressive resume for another possible moniker this season: Cy Young.
"Sure, he belongs in the conversation, he's throwing the ball outstanding," said pitching coach Steve McCatty, who watched the so-called No. 3 pitcher on his staff strike out 11, matching a career high, allow just three hits and walk no one.
"He's consistent, but the stuff is really good," McCatty said. "Right now, [the 9-6 record] would probably affect what you would say about Jordan, but I'd match his stuff up with pretty much everybody else. I think everybody else would be pretty happy to have him on their team. You can't judge him on [wins and losses], because his stuff is really unbelievable."
Zimmermann may not get a phone call in mid-November to let him know that he's won the league's most prestigious honor for pitchers. The competition will be fierce, and it will likely include at least two other members of his own team. But there's no doubting any longer whether the stoic right-hander belongs in the discussion.
After 23 starts, Zimmermann has a 2.35 ERA. He's held opponents to a .238 batting average and he's allowed one run or less in 14 of his outings. He attacks hitters with his mid-90s fastball, surprises them with his biting slider and, when he has to, mixes in his curveball and change-up. He didn't have to Thursday.
Of the 87 pitches he threw to the Astros, all but two were either a fastball or a slider.
"The impressive part is he goes right at you," said catcher Kurt Suzuki. "He ain't trying to trick you. He ain't trying to nibble. Here it is: hit it. That's the kind of mentality you need."
When Clayton Kershaw completed his 23rd start in his Cy Young-winning 2011 season, he had a 2.68 ERA, a .212 opponents' batting average and 177 strikeouts. Roy Halladay had a 2.17 ERA and a .240 batting average against in 2010. Compare Zimmermann to Lincecum in 2009 and 2008, or Peavy in 2007, too, and the results are just as similar.
Averaging the last five Cy Young winners' stats through the first 23 starts of their award-winning season, the numbers are as follows: 2.39 ERA, .223 opponents' batting average, 171 strikeouts and an average of seven innings per start. The only category in which Zimmermann lags behind the five previous winners is strikeouts, ascribing wholeheartedly to McCatty's philosophy on pitching to contact, but as Thursday showed, he can do it when he wants.
"I got a lot of swings and misses today, which is actually good," Zimmermann said. "I'm happy with the outing. I felt good. I had pretty good location. I missed on a few, but it was definitely better than the last start and I wanted to come out and have a good start after that last one."
The right-hander was buoyed by a two-run fourth inning and two mammoth home runs from Michael Morse, including one that clanked off the new signage hung over the left field wall that blocks the train tracks running along the top of it. It was estimated at 415 feet but likely would have gone much farther had its path not been interrupted.
Zimmermann is pitching without restriction this season, after being held to just over 160 innings in 2011 as he continued his progress from Tommy John surgery, but Johnson has remained cautious with him because of some shoulder soreness that cropped up shortly after the All-Star break.
It didn't matter. Six innings was plenty to get the Nationals to an MLB-best 69-43 record.
And it was enough for Zimmermann to prove once again that his season shouldn't be overlooked because of its consistency, especially because he consistently delivers.
"I feel like I have a pretty good season going right now," Zimmermann said. "I just want to finish strong and not fall off toward the end. I guess whatever awards are out there, hopefully I get mentioned in some of them — but the main goal right now is to make the playoffs."
He's been called a lot of things as this season has unfolded and as the Nationals have gone from also-rans to bullies. It's not inconceivable Cy Young could eventually be one of them.
"He competes," McCatty said. "He doesn't care. He's not afraid. He comes after you. He does what he does, and he doesn't change. It's not like he's a plodder, but he's a plodder. A thoroughbred. He shakes his head and throws what he wants to throw. I love a guy that shakes his head and throws what he wants to throw. Jordan's been super."
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