- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 28, 2012

MILWAUKEE — There aren’t too many people out there who still don’t know what Jordan Zimmermann can do on the mound. Not too many who haven’t heard that, despite being less heralded than some of his rotation mates, his talent and consistency could rival any in the game.

On a picturesque Wisconsin evening, in the Nationals’ 4-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, Zimmermann did what he always does: he threw six innings, allowed one run and spent most of his time dominating the Brewers’ lineup.

“Zim was Zim,” manager Davey Johnson said.

Only this time he got a chance to do it in his home state, in front of a crowd packed with his friends and family, many wearing navy colored T-shirts that read “Auburndale Pride” across the chest. This time, buoyed by home runs from Corey Brown, Tyler Moore and Ryan Zimmerman, he was able to put on a winning show and help the Nationals move back to 20 games over .500 at 60-40.

“It was a dream come true to pitch in front of my family and friends and everyone who came out to watch,” Zimmermann said. “I’m just glad I gave them a good showing.”

The village of Auburndale, Wis., sits 177 miles to the northwest of Milwaukee and has a population under 800. The drive to Miller Park takes just over three hours.

Zimmermann left enough tickets for more than five percent of the population, then, when he reserved 45 tickets for family and friends to pick up on Saturday afternoon. But there were far more of Auburndale’s finest who made the trek and Zimmermann spotted many of them in the crowd as he made his way off the mound between innings.

“They were out in the parking lot tailgating since 3 o’clock today, so I’m sure they’re all feeling pretty good right now,” Zimmermann quipped when asked if he’d gotten a sense of how special this occasion was for his friends and family.

“I’m sure [Auburndale’s] a ghost town [tonight].”

They made the shirts in 2009 when Zimmermann was on schedule to pitch here, but he tore his ulnar collateral ligament before he could make it and the shirts seemingly went into storage until Saturday night. What they saw when they pulled them out was a pitcher who has matured into one of the best in the National League, if not all of Major League Baseball.

His 2.28 ERA ranks as the lowest on the Nationals’ MLB-best starting rotation and is the third-lowest mark in the NL. His record is deceptive at 8-6 — the mark of a pitcher whose offense struggled to support him for much of the first half — but his 4.2 WAR (wins above replacement) is the second-highest for pitchers in the NL behind the Reds’ Johnny Cueto.

His performance on Saturday night showed his hometown crowd the reasons for all of those numbers as he scattered five Brewers hits, struck out six and allowed just one earned run when a leadoff double by Aramis Ramirez in the fourth came back to haunt him.

“I just didn’t want to go out there and have a terrible outing,” Zimmermann said. “But I thought I threw the ball well and got some quick outs. They’ve got a pretty good lineup, and I was able to do pretty well.”

What he wasn’t able to do was pitch more than six innings. Zimmermann’s streak of lasting at least six innings in all 21 of his starts this season lived on, though, making it the second-longest such streak in the majors behind Justin Verlander’s 63 straight.

But Johnson pulled him after six at just 93 pitches because of an issue the right-hander’s been having getting loose before his starts.

“He’s had a little bit trouble warming up, so I’m a little concerned about that,” Johnson said, explaining also why Zimmermann was lifted after six against the Mets on Monday night, despite throwing only 89 pitches.

“I’m holding his pitches down. He’s fine, but it concerns me when they have a little trouble getting loose.”

After his first 10 warm-up tosses, though, everything seems to go back to normal. Zimmermann brushed off any concerns as “just one of those things that all pitchers go through, a little aches and pains,” and insisted he’d be fine.

“As you can see, I went six tonight and only gave up one,” he added. “I’m happy with that. It’s just something every pitcher goes through and it happens a couple times a year.”

He appeared to have no issues Saturday, and with a three-run fourth that featured Brown’s first major league hit (and home run) as well as Moore’s sixth of the season, Zimmermann was given enough cushion that he didn’t worry about letting the adrenaline from pitching so close to home get the best of him.

“He’s always the same,” said Johnson, who earned his 100th victory in a Nationals uniform with the win. “He’s got great composure.”

“I watched plenty of games here,” Zimmermann said. “I actually pitched down here in an [American Legion] All-Star game one time. I was on that mound once before. But I’m just happy we got the win tonight.”

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