Nothing changed, Jordan Zimmermann said, even despite the evidence that something had. He cruised through the first four innings of the Nationals’ 4-1 loss to the Phillies this afternoon with cool efficiency. He allowed only one hit and did not allow any runners past first base. A deep and dominant start seemed to be in the offing.
And then it ended. Zimmermann faced eight batters in a three-run fifth inning, and when the pitcher’s spot led off the next inning Manager Davey Johnson pulled him for a pinch hitter. Cliff Lee smashed a double off him, and Jimmy Rollins crushed a three-run homer. The only difference, Zimmermann said, was a few misplaced pitches.
“The first four innings were kind of a breeze,” Zimmermann said. “In the fifth inning, I just hit a wall and got in a little bit of trouble. I definitely felt strong, which is a good thing. The stuff was pretty sharp. I got to take some positive out of it. My arm feels great. I feel strong. I’m definitely not tired. I feel like I can definitely pitch a lot more.”
Zimmermann’s evaluation of his health comes at an important time. In his next start, he will enter new territory – his first September start in a full season. At this time last year, Zimmermann was two days away from reaching a 160-inning limit the Nationals mandated as he returned from Tommy John surgery. In his next start, he will set a new career-high for innings in a season.
With the reins finally removed, Zimmermann has pitched 161 innings in 26 starts this season. He began the year with a remarkable string of consistency, throwing at least six innings in his first 21 starts. One of those came July 28 in Milwaukee, a six-inning, one-run gem.
After that outing, Johnson revealed Zimmermann had been on a semi-restricted pitch count because he had trouble getting his shoulder loose during warmups. In the five starts since, counting today, Zimmermann has pitched six innings only twice and has a 4.39 ERA over 26 2/3 . As far as blips go, that’s really not so bad.
On Friday, Zimmermann said he had pretty much stopped thinking about the shoulder inflammation. “I’m not too worried about it,” he said. Johnson also said he no longer worried about Zimmermann’s condition. This afternoon, Zimmermann reiterated he has moved past the shoulder issue.
This afternoon, Zimmermann’s fastball averaged 93.8 miles per hour, right at his season average. Still, Zimmermann faltered after his four great innings. Kevin Frandsen led off the fifth inning with a sharp single to left field. As Zimmermann faced Erik Kratz, a 94-mph fastball squirted away from Jesus Flores. The passed ball moved Frandsen to second with no outs, giving the Phillies their first runner in scoring position all day.
After Bryce Harper made a tremendous sliding catch in shallow center, Zimmermann imploded. Lee, of all batters, crushed a double to the warning track in center, which put the Phillies ahead. Jimmy Rollins followed by drilling a low-and-inside, 3-1 fastball into the right field seats. The Phillies led, 3-0, and that seemed insurmountable the way Lee was coasting.
“I just made a couple bad pitches,” Zimmermann said. “I wasn’t doing that in the first couple innings. Everything was down in the zone and sharp. I just left a fastball up there.”