- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t carry the same cachè, didn’t sign the same type of monster contract and certainly doesn’t pack a stadium the way the Washington Nationals’ best-known right-handed pitcher does. He’s not Stephen Strasburg, and that’s just fine.

But in his first full season of major league work after August 2009 Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann has evolved into a must-see starter every five days in his own right. The way his mid-90s fastball moves, his curveball drops and his slider breaks, it’s all an impressive package to watch each time out — at least for five or six innings.

For the first 90-100 pitches of Zimmermann’s starts in a mostly dominant season, he cruises. He gets batters to react like Arizona’s Chris Young Tuesday night: staring at Zimmermann, looking back at his bat, staring back out at right-hander as he walks back to the dugout, baffled by what he’s seen.

And then, as has happened on a handful of occasions, he reaches his breaking point. Zimmermann makes one errant pitch, sometimes two, and they decide the game. The 25-year-old hardly gets any run support — entering Tuesday, the offense averaged 2.7 runs per start while he’s in the game —  and he leaves a tough-luck loser.

Tuesday night the difference between maintaining the scoreless duel he had going with Ian Kennedy and the 2-0 loss was a 92-mph fastball.

It was the first pitch Zimmermann (8-11) delivered to third baseman Sean Burroughs, who hadn’t hit a major league home run since 2005, and it followed a seven-pitch walk to Young. Intended to be thrown down and away, the pitch was over the heart of the plate and came seconds after pitching coach Steve McCatty visited the mound.

“When you’re a top-end-of-the-rotation guy, you learn how to get through those things,” McCatty said. “That’s a hard one to learn when it goes against you. … It’s a painful experience. Learning, but painful. You just learn not to make that mistake.”

“One pitch kills me again,” Zimmermann said. “I feel like I’m doing everything I can out there. It’s just that one pitch I leave up or a little blooper. It always seems like it’s something with me that, towards the end of the game, goes wrong.”

A double by Kennedy, the next batter, ended Zimmermann’s night and he walked off to an ovation from the 17,029 who made it to Nationals Park after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the area early Tuesday afternoon. They weren’t cheering for the home run, of course, but for the effort that preceded it on this night — 6 1/3 innings, two earned runs on five hits and two walks, with four strikeouts — and the 24 mostly stellar outings that came before it. With a 3.10 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, this season has solidified Zimmermann’s place atop the rotation.

Zimmermann has officially thrown 157 innings this year, giving him three more in the allotment placed on him before, as Nationals manager Davey Johnson put it, “he can go fishing.” He’ll get one more start, treated the same as any other, so chances are good that he ends the season with a few more innings than the limit placed upon him earlier this year.

But in his 25 total outings, his offense has been shut out three times, including Tuesday night. He’s turned in 16 quality starts this year, including 11 straight at one point, and on six occasions he’s given up two earned runs or less — and lost.

“Sometimes it just makes it like you’ve got to be perfect,” Zimmermann said, refusing to accept the poor run support as an excuse. “If they get runs early, you can settle in and not have to be so perfect.”

Perhaps most painful, though, is the fact that Zimmermann leaves these starts where he looks so good for so long with a sour taste in his mouth. His start in Chicago on Aug. 11 ended after a back-to-back home runs by Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. In May, a gem against Baltimore was ruined on a two-run homer by Vladimir Guerrero. He tied a season-high with 109 pitches Tuesday night, but it was No. 108 that did him in. In Chicago, it was No. 105.

“I know he’s been held pretty close to 80, 90, 100 pitches,” Johnson said. “I’ve kind of liked the way he’s throwing and I’ve tired to go farther. He’ll get over it. I’m not that concerned about it.”

“It’s extremely important for your top-end guys that they get through those innings,” McCatty said. “And to me, he was cruising. You’ve got to let guys go out there and learn how to get through those and he’s going to do that. He will do that. He’s got great stuff. He’s a great competitor. I know he’s disappointed and upset, but guys that are like that, they get through it, because they don’t quit.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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