VIERA, Fla. — Wind gusts blowing out around 18 mph greeted Jordan Zimmermann as he climbed the mound Wednesday for his first start of spring training. One hundred ninety-one days had passed since the Washington Nationals right-hander pitched in a game situation, as an innings limit left him in a spectator's role for the last month of the 2011 season.
"Fine with me," the normally stoic Zimmermann said. "As long as I'm able to pitch every five days."
This spring, reporters surround the lockers of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. They ask questions about the Nationals' yet-to-be-decided No. 5 starter (John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang or Ross Detwiler). The focus on the Nationals' pitching, and the excitement around it, has never been more obvious, but Zimmermann somehow has managed to avoid the spotlight. That's also fine with him.
Wednesday afternoon, Zimmermann threw three scoreless innings in the Nationals' 3-3 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals - the opening act to a season in which he'll finally, mercifully, have no limitations.
He walked one, surrendered three hits, struggled to locate his fastball in the wind and showed off a slider so nasty that all three of his strikeouts came as hitters swung helplessly at it for Strike 3. Away to Eugenio Velez, inside to Zack Cox and Matt Adams. The only time he threw a changeup, a pitch he's been working to fine-tune, Jon Jay hit it for a single. Otherwise, he was himself.
On the brink of a season in which Zimmermann is expected to throw 200-plus innings and, if his 2011 was any indication, could be one of the finest any Nationals pitcher has put together, all Washington has wanted is for Zimmermann to be himself.
As the Nationals set up their draft board in June 2007, Zimmermann's name resided in the bottom quarter of their top 100. The Wisconsin native pitched with his jaw wired shut and down about 10 pounds when the Nationals had scouted him as a group under then-general manager Jim Bowden during a tournament in Florida. They came away unimpressed, and with the majority of his games in snowy Stevens Point, Wis., not many scouts found their way out to see him again.
But Mike Rizzo did, as did Nationals scout Steve Arnieri, and both knew there was more to the young man than had come across in the team's first viewing. He was a bulldog, they surmised, using a term that still comes up constantly when Zimmermann's name is mentioned. They knew they had to have him.
That was the prelude to Rizzo's draft-room bombshell. When the board was nearly set, Rizzo watched quietly as each placard was placed before Bowden asked if it had everyone's approval. Rizzo picked up Zimmermann's name and slid it horizontally across the board as the room sat shocked at what the then-assistant GM was suggesting. He let it rest once Zimmermann had moved into the team's top 15 and Bowden, siding with Rizzo and his scouting judgment, helped put out the heated argument that ensued.
Still, Rizzo had to wait as the Nationals selected Detwiler (sixth overall), Josh Smoker (31st) and Michael Burgess (49th) ahead of Zimmermann (67th). Rizzo had no intention of letting him drop further, though, and with each start in which Zimmermann has shown what he's capable of, with each slider that dazzles or fastball that pops the mitt, Rizzo has been proved right.
Smoker, a lefty, has since been converted to a reliever and hasn't pitched above Single-A Potomac. Burgess never played above Double-A with the Nationals and was part of the trade with the Chicago Cubs that brought left-hander Tom Gorzelanny to the Nationals in January 2011. Zimmermann, meanwhile, has a 3.84 ERA in 49 major league starts the past three seasons - including a 3.18 mark and just 31 walks in 161 1/3 innings last year.
"I think he's a top-of-the-rotation guy," manager Davey Johnson said earlier this spring, comparing Zimmermann's development to that of Ron Darling, who Johnson managed on the New York Mets. In his third full season, Darling was 15-6 with a 2.81 ERA and threw 237 innings to help the Mets win the World Series in 1986.
"I think Zim is closer," Johnson said. "I think, after what he's done, he'll be closer this year to being the kind of pitcher we all know he's capable of being."
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