The pitcher that Jordan Zimmermann is now, the one he was Wednesday night at Nationals Park, is the one the Nationals have seen in him since the beginning.
He’s the one they call a bulldog. A soft-spoken Wisconsin native who gets cast in the shadow of his more prominent rotation mates and responds by turning himself into one of the most consistent pitchers in all of baseball.
The one he is now, the guy who twirled six shutout innings over the Mets in a 4-3 victory that not only put his team 17 games over .500 but was his 19th straight outing of at least six innings, finishes his outings. He no longer allows one spinning slider or hanging curveball to define his night late in a tightly-contested game.
“He’s a man out there,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “No doubt about it. He has a great presence. He knows what he wants to do. There’s no muss, no fuss. He says, ‘Here, hit it.’ He goes right after them.”
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, maybe not so long ago, that the Nationals No. 3 starter — who could easily play No. 1 on a host of other staffs — would’ve stared in at Ruben Tejada like he did in the sixth inning and tried simply to strike him out.
After five nearly flawless innings, Zimmermann allowed a leadoff double to Mets pitcher Chris Young. Balancing the seventh game he’s taken into at least the fifth inning without any run support, he didn’t want Tejada, in a 3-2 count, to get anything that would allow Young to move to third. Not a ground ball out, not a base hit. Nothing. Jesus Flores called time and went out to talk.
“Hey,” Flores told him, “We better challenge this guy. I feel you can get him with the fastball.”
“The heater,” Zimmermann agreed. “We weren’t going to mess around and try to get cute with a slider and end up walking him. Then we’d really have our hands full. I just went after him with the heater, and it got the job done.”
Tejada flared Zimmermann’s 93-mph offering to right field for an out. Young never moved off second base and the Nationals’ right-hander got Daniel Murphy to ground out and David Wright to fly to center to end the frame. They were three huge outs for Zimmermann. Three outs he might not have recorded in the past.
“When I first got called up, I was trying to strike everybody out,” Zimmermann said, acknowledging his evolution over the past four years. “That’s probably what I would have done in that situation. And I would’ve walked him and gotten into more trouble. Now, I’m using my fastball. See if he can hit it.”
But, as so many have found this season and is evidenced by his 2.35 ERA (the sixth-best mark in the major leagues), not too many can hit what he’s offering. Three years removed from Tommy John surgery, his strength and his command of his pitches are as consistent as his demeanor, and it’s showing in the results.
In the bottom of the inning, after a mostly silent night at the plate, Bryce Harper beat out an infield single and Adam LaRoche cracked his 16th home run into the Red Porch seats in center field. An inning later, with his second pivotal double in as many nights, Steve Lombardozzi helped the Nationals tack on two more insurance runs, giving Tyler Clippard the cushion he’d need after surrendering two solo home runs in the ninth.
It was one of the rare occasions the Nationals have made a winner out of Zimmermann after he’d done his best to make winners out of them all night. Good enough, even, for Zimmermann to offer to buy LaRoche “whatever he wants. A steak or something.”
“We’ve been rough on him,” LaRoche said after his first home run since June 26. “We’ve had some opportunities … and haven’t got guys in. He went and did what he does. It’s what he’s been doing all year. It’s amazing.
“I can’t say enough about him,” he added. “He’s quiet and goes about his business, but he’s turning into a No. 1 for anybody.”
LaRoche allowed a mischievous smile to cross his face. “I’ll take him up on that steak, though,” he said.