Starting pitching is so much about poise and composure that Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t sure what to do. The Washington Nationals’ starter made just one relief appearance in his life before Thursday, but there he was in the bullpen awaiting his opportunity in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
“I talked to Craig [Stammen] and I said I don’t know if this coming out of the ‘pen stuff is for me,” Zimmermann said. “He said, ‘Just get out there try to tame their emotions a little bit and just let it go.’ “
That’s exactly what Zimmermann did as he ran out of the right-field bullpen at Nationals Park in the seventh inning with the score tied at 1 and the season on the line. All Zimmermann did in uncharted territory was strike out all three St. Louis Cardinals batters he faced to jump-start a dominant bullpen performance in the Nationals’ 2-1 victory that staved off elimination.
“I just looked at it as just a start,” Zimmermann said. “I was just amped up a little more and 45,000 people will make you do that.”
“You can switch the momentum when you have guys come out and perform like they did, do what Zimm and Clipp did,” Storen said. “That changes the momentum, gets the crowd into it. The crowd loves strikeouts, so you’ve got to feed them a little bit, I guess.”
Zimmermann got the feeding frenzy started in the seventh. Manager Davey Johnson had Ryan Mattheus and other regular bullpen arms available, but he gave the nod to his Game 2 starter who gave up five earned runs in three innings by this same Cardinals team Monday at Busch Stadium.
It didn’t take long for Zimmermann to handsomely reward his manager for that faith. Zimmermann looked like he was in his natural habitat as a reliever, working velocity and variation to perfection. He was throwing a fastball that hit 97 mph, a slider at 91 and a curveball at 81, and all three pitches were working.
“He came in, and I mean, he was hyped. That’s the hardest I’ve seen him throw all year,” said Johnson, who shook off the notion of Zimmermann as a future closer. “It reminded me of [Eric] Gagne when he came in as a reliever; he would throw it as hard as he could throw it.”
Guns blazing, Zimmermann kept the ball down and let it rip. He struck out Pete Kozma, Kyle Lohse and Jon Jay, igniting the crowd with a fist-pump after the final strikeout.
“I was a little jacked up,” he admitted. “I struck out the side and the fans are going nuts, I just wanted to try to get the crowd into it more than what they were and try to get the momentum on our side.”
“I’ve never seen him do anything, so I told him he’s a different pitcher out of the bullpen,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s going to have to grow facial hair or something.”
Don’t count on a transformation for Zimmermann, who could have to turn back around and start for the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday. Of course, that would require a Game 5 victory Friday, when the bullpen could again be tasked with shutting down the Cardinals.
After Zimmermann departed following his perfect inning Thursday, Clippard and Storen helped ensure there would be a tomorrow in Washington. Clippard struck out three of the four batters he faced in the eighth and then Storen had two strikeouts to start the ninth.