For the first three months of his season, Jordan Zimmermann eliminated one variable for the Washington Nationals. All 21 starts, they knew their starting pitcher would throw deep into the game, pump fastballs over the plate and dominate. Zimmermann’s consistent brilliance obscured a complicating principle of his profession: He can control nothing after the ball leaves his hands, once it’s hit toward the eight men behind him.
Zimmermann’s 21-start streak of throwing at least six innings, the longest in the majors, ended in the Nationals’ raucous 10-7 victory Saturday night. He entered the game with a 2.25 ERA, the best in the majors, and left with it at 2.45, still elite but no longer tops. He could blame both his own defense and minor rust.
Zimmermann received six days of rest between his last start and Saturday night. After he shut down the Brewers last Saturday, he took Sunday and Monday completely off. Normally, he would have played catch those days. The Nationals wanted to take precaution, because Zimmermann felt inflammation in his right shoulder.
Zimmermann had been having trouble loosening up before starts, and team doctors prescribed physical treatment and anti-inflammatory pills. He had no medical restrictions for his start, and Johnson insisted the Nationals would not push him back again.
“I’m not really worried about it,” Johnson said before the game. “Even at the height of his problem, he’d still be throwing good. Extra couple days’ rest, feeling a little better, I might be worried he’s too strong, starts rushing or something. Hopefully not.”
The extra days off had the desired effect. Zimmermann had no problem warming up, no more soreness in his shoulder.
“I felt great,” Zimmermann said. “The rest definitely helped. The shoulder felt fine. I didn’t feel anything. I was just a little off tonight.”
Zimmermann allowed five runs, four of them earned, in five innings on seven hits. He hit a batter and walked another in the second, which for him qualifies as a control meltdown — he had walked one batter in his previous 18 innings. He hit 95 mph with his fastball, the same velocity as usual. Typically precise with his location, he left some balls up.
“I didn’t have the best control tonight,” Zimmermann said. “I took a few days off from throwing this week to give the shoulder a little rest. I just didn’t have the feel or the command. It wasn’t one of the normal starts. I made some good pitches and they got a couple broken bat hits that could have gone either way. We’ll move on and get the work in this week and get a bullpen session in and be good to go.”
Zimmermann may not have been as sharp as usual, but his defense betrayed him more than his rustiness. In the second inning, with one out and runners on first and second, Zimmermann induced a groundball up the middle from Gorkys Hernandez. Steve Lombardozzi shuffled to his right, scooped the ball and flipped it to Danny Espinosa.
Espinosa glided over second base and pulled the ball out of his glove. Just as the pretty, inning-ending double play developed, Espinosa gunned the ball over the home dugout. Carlos Lee, whom Zimmermann had hit with a pitch, scored from second base.
With the inning still alive, John Buck slugged a double over Bryce Harper’s head in right field. Hernandez cruised home to put the Marlins up, 2-0. The second run was charged to Zimmermann, because a century ago the men who devised such things decided you cannot assume the double play. But all 33,449 in attendance knew the inning should have been over.
“Jordan pitched great again and we basically let him down on defense,” Espinosa said. “I let him down and made a couple errors that cost us runs. Our team should never have been in the situation we were in to have to come back like that. He pitched too well. He could have gone probably 7-8 innings the way he was pitching, and when you make errors behind a guy like that it extends the pitches he has to throw and doesn’t really show how well he did for the night.”
Bryan Petersen led off the fifth with a single – Zimmermann sawed off his entire bat at the handle, but the ball plopped into shallow right. He moved to second on a sac bunt, and then Reyes hit a grounder up the middle. Espinosa made the play, and then fired high to first. LaRoche catches most every ball in his vicinity, but the ball deflected off his glove and rolled into the dugout. Petersen scored the Marlins’ fourth run. In center, Werth played a line drive single from Lee into a double, which put the Marlins up, 5-3.
Ultimately, Espinosa made up for his errors with his booming, game-winning homer in the eighth. Zimmermann watched as the park exploded.
“The fans are starting to come out and they’re starting to realize we’re having a pretty good season,” Zimmermann said. “The more fans, the louder it gets and the more crazy they get. It’s definitely good to see.”