- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

As he took the mound on a dreary Tuesday afternoon at Nationals Park, Jordan Zimmermann tried not to think about the situation.

The right-hander knew that the Washington Nationals’ bullpen was worn down after a tumultuous three-game series in Cincinnati. He knew that any additional rest he could provide in the first game of a split doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays would be needed.

In other words, he knew that he needed to pitch deep into the game.

“Basically [throw] the ball over the middle and let them put the ball in play,” Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann took that simple philosophy to the mound and executed it perfectly. In his best start of the season, he held a Blue Jays lineup that leads the major leagues in runs to only six hits over eight scoreless innings, leading Washington to a 2-0 victory in the series opener. Max Scherzer was slated to start Game 2, which was scheduled to begin at 7:05.

Zimmermann struck out four batters and walked only one, cruising into the seventh inning and wiggling out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in that frame to keep Toronto off the board. Drew Storen pitched a spotless ninth to pick up his 17th save of the season, a bow on Zimmermann’s dominant afternoon.

SEE ALSO: The Rundown: Jordan Zimmermann shines as Nationals take Game 1 of doubleheader

“He was in command from the first pitch, you know, throwing it where he wanted to,” manager Matt Williams said. “Early on, he was keeping his pitch count down which allowed him to go deeper too. I don’t know where he ended up, 105 [pitches]. That’s really good for eight innings.”

Scherzer has been tremendous over the first two months of the season, but Zimmermann has quietly been almost as good. An abbreviated outing in Boston on April 13 had been his lone blemish. In each of his other 10 outings, he has turned in a quality start, pitching at least six innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs. Including Tuesday’s appearance, the Nationals have now won six of his past starts. His ERA is down to 2.88.

“I’ve been feeling good. I was a little off in the beginning and everything’s working now, and right where I want to be,” Zimmermann said. “Early on, like I said, I was flying open and the ball was sinking and running and I didn’t have very good control. Now I’m more on line and staying through the target.”

Zimmermann has always been a pitch-to-contact starter, but he was especially efficient on Tuesday. In four of his eight innings, he threw 10 pitches or fewer and did not allow a baserunner. Only once, in the seventh inning, did someone advance to third base. Zimmermann responded in that instance by throwing an inside fastball to pinch-hitter Russell Martin, who grounded into an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play.

It was a performance Zimmermann’s teammates have come to expect.

“I think the Blue Jays are a great hitting team,” said right fielder Bryce Harper, who drove in one of Washington’s two runs in the game. “But having Jordan out there, it’s a guy you want on the mound every single night, and he’s very good, so all the credit to him.”

With the first two months of the season in the books, Zimmermann is now pitching like the player who was named to the all-star team in each of the past two seasons, even though he’s not striking out opposing hitters at the same rate. He’s on pace to strike out only 142 batters this season, which would be his lowest total since 2011.

Asked about the decline, Zimmermann said he doesn’t care about strikeouts as long as he’s recording outs and winning games. Nor does his manager. Zimmermann’s ability to pitch deep into games — and save the bullpen in the process — is far more important.

“If we get in a situation like we have been where the bullpen has been used pretty heavy, you know when he goes out there, he going to give you opportunity to rest those guys as much as possible and can go deep in a game,” Williams said. “It’s nice to have him on our club because he can provide that for us. He got a big base hit to start an inning, scored a run. He does a lot of things on the field that help him win games.”

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