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Jordan Zimmermann’s quiet rise to All-Star status

NEW YORK — Winter in Wisconsin can seem relentless. Snow blankets the ground. The temperature rarely jumps above 27 degrees, and it's not uncommon for it to hover in the single digits. The world expands for miles in front of you, and it's almost entirely frozen.

This is Jordan Zimmermann's paradise.

The Washington Nationals right-hander pushes the madness of the baseball season into his rearview and shuffles his way onto the frozen canvas of a lake of his choosing two or three times a week. He cuts a hole in the ice, drops in his fishing line and waits. Usually he's with a buddy or two, if they don't have to work.

Last winter, they rented shanties up north and stayed on the ice for four days — a trip that prompted Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, a Michigan native, to chide him.

"That's not ice fishing," McCatty said incredulously. "When you go out there and it's like 20 degrees below [zero] and you've got a little stool and your thermos there, like an idiot, that's ice fishing."

Zimmermann laughs. Technology has made it so that he can monitor when a fish is approaching his line and adjust the level of his bait accordingly. He has an underwater camera and an electric filet knife to quickly prepare the fish for cooking. His first purchase after the Nationals paid him $495,000 to sign as their second-round pick in 2007 was a fishing boat, but the baseball season doesn't allow him to use it much.

When he's alone he'll most often do "tip-up" fishing, in which he can drop in his lines and wait in the warmth of his car until the flag goes up and he knows he's got a bite.

"So, I'll just drop those in and sit in the car," Zimmermann said. Then he cracked a mischievous smile. "And tweet all day or something," he added sarcastically.

Zimmermann, of course, does not tweet. He is not interested in self promotion or dipping into the world of social media that has enticed so many athletes. He'd rather go about his business in relative anonymity. While he's gotten more loquacious over the years, he's still not the wordiest interview.

It's hard for everyone to keep ignoring you, though, when you continue to prove you are among the best in the game. When he is announced at the All-Star game at Citi Field on Tuesday night, with a 12-4 record and a 2.58 ERA at the break, there will be very few ways left for him to continue going unnoticed.

"Jordan is one hell of a pitcher," Phillies infielder Kevin Frandsen said last week. "Everyone talks about [Matt Harvey of the New York Mets] starting the All-Star game, but that guy has made himself one hell of a resume all year. The last couple years."

"It's great seeing him get the recognition he deserves, because he works hard, he has a lot of pride and he competes," McCatty said. "He knows he's good, and I think he also knows there's still stuff to learn. But he's not just good, he's better than good. He's really good."

Developing an ace

The process of Zimmermann becoming the pitcher he is now — with Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche getting used to opposing players pulling him aside and saying, "I think this might be your best pitcher" — was not quick.

When Zimmermann was entering his senior year at Auburndale High School, his coach, Mark Brost, wrote letters to all 30 major league teams about the pitcher. As it says on the sign denoting the town line, the population of Auburndale is 738. Major league scouts weren't exactly flocking there.

Brost got only four responses, and the teams that did wanted to look at Zimmermann as a catcher because he was undersized for a pro pitching prospect.

"He was the best catcher in the entire area," Brost said. "The only reason I pulled him out from behind the plate was because I knew he could pitch and he had the ability to be really special. Did I see he'd be able to reach 95 mph? I'm not so sure I thought that was possible. It's impressive. It's amazing."

Brost watches Zimmermann pitch now and chuckles at his size, and all of the power he can generate from his legs.

"I can't believe how big his [butt] is," he said with a laugh. "He told a couple buddies around town that he has to have all his pants tailor-made now because he's built his bottom half up so much.

"But I think I'm very lucky to be part of that. Nobody gets that opportunity, to coach a big league player. Our whole town has that ownership of him."

Establishing an identity

Zimmermann is not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez. He did not march his way to the major leagues under unrelenting hype. He was not the centerpiece of a prospect package. He does not brood, like Strasburg. He is not gregarious, like Gonzalez. He has a quick wit, and talks plenty with his teammates and friends. Brost said Zimmermann was "probably the craziest kid you'll ever meet" when around his friends despite his soft-spoken nature with others.

His 2011 innings limit, part of his rehab plan after 2009 Tommy John surgery, went largely unnoticed outside of Washington. He hardly knows any major league players other than his teammates. He chatted with Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee on his way to Citi Field on Monday. They talked hunting and fishing.

While his under-the-radar success makes it seem as though he could've been an All-Star last year, or perhaps even in 2011, Zimmermann also struggled for a time with throwing too many strikes — a stubborn unwillingness to waste pitches. As a result, he'd sometimes hit a wall in his starts, with high pitch counts in the fifth or sixth inning, and one bad pitch hit for a homer would ruin an otherwise strong performance.

It wasn't easy for McCatty to get the idea across to Zimmermann that it's OK — necessary, even — to throw pitches outside of the strike zone. It took time. It took trial and error. Mostly it took him failing enough times to listen.

"Kind of like chipping away on the ice going ice fishing," McCatty said. "At some point, there's a breakthrough."

Early in the 2011 season, McCatty took Zimmermann into his office and bluntly laid out his thoughts on the right-hander's progression. He could continue to throw a breaking ball and a hard fastball and pound the strike zone without regard for situations, or he could learn how to pitch.

"It was pretty much point-blank to him: Until the point comes when you decide that you're going to make your misses where they should be instead of just saying, 'I'm going to throw strikes,' this is what you're going to have," McCatty said. "'It's a decision that you have to make.' After that, he just took off."

"Fishing and pitching are similar in the strategy part of it," Zimmermann said, running through how he reads hitters now.

For example, if they're late on the fastball, he won't throw a change-up, which he might have in the past. "If one bait's not working, you switch it up and put a different bait on. If the fastball's not working, you switch it up and throw something else."

Zimmermann thinks he was named to the All-Star team this season mostly because he has more wins than any other pitcher in the National League. His ERA, he points out, was fairly similar at 2.61 at the All-Star break last season. He credits run support, but he's also averaging seven innings per start and he's thrown three complete games.

His improvement is obvious to those who have to deal with him most, particularly with this year's incorporation of a change-up that he's noticed has batters staring up at the stadium radar guns quizzically.

Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman just sighed when he was asked about facing Zimmermann.

"It's not fun. At all," Freeman said. "[It's] much more difficult [now]. The first couple years, it was a lot of heaters and then this year it's change-ups, back-door sliders. He's learned how to pitch. I don't know where that came from. I wish it never happened, but he's been amazing."

Learning the spotlight

At one point during the hourlong media session for the All-Stars on Monday, Zimmermann glanced over at the crowd around Bryce Harper. With reporters and cameras several rows deep around his teammate, Zimmermann's contingent looked tame by comparison.

When the crowd thinned out for a minute, Zimmermann grabbed a towel and wiped his arms and face. He'd never answered so many questions in one sitting in his life. He rolled his eyes. "This is miserable," he said, though he smiled.

To his right, Harper stared out at a still-growing group of reporters and unflinchingly continued to answer questions. To his left, manager Davey Johnson was regaling his own group of media with tales from his days with the Mets and the Orioles.

It may still take some time, and perhaps many more seasons like this one, before Zimmermann is better accustomed to handling the spotlight. It may still take some time for the spotlight to adjust to him, too. When Zimmermann was named to the All-Star team, MLB put out a T-shirt for sale with his number on it and the name "Zimmerman." When the Nationals played the Mets two weeks ago, Citi Field put up his picture on the scoreboard when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was batting.

"It used to be celebrated to be like Jordan," Zimmerman said of his teammate's no-flash style. "Now, it's not because it's boring and nobody wants boring. Everyone wants someone tweeting how good their stats are or taking a picture of themselves after a win. Nobody just wants the person who just does their job.

"[But] I don't think he would change for anyone. That's fine, too. I think he is who he is. He understands that now. Who he is is pretty good. There's no need to change."

Zimmermann won't get to pitch Tuesday, a lingering neck issue leading he and the Nationals to err on the side of caution. But that hasn't dulled the enjoyment of his All-Star selection any for him, or those around him.

"It's nice to see somebody who isn't flashy on the field, or try to show people up or take advantage of being good in this sport [get recognized]," LaRoche said. "I don't think he acts like he's above anybody, regardless of the last few years, climbing up and being one of the top pitchers in the game. It's easy to respect that."

Added McCatty: "Seeing how he's progressed, being in the room with him on the ultimate low, when he tore his UCL, to what he's come back and done? Yeah, I am extremely happy. It's really cool. It really is. Just to see him learn what he does and how he's applying it. There's still room to grow, but he's awfully damn good."

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