Jordan Zimmermann starts strong

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

One day this spring, Jordan Zimmermann assured Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty he would throw his change-up, once again his spring training focus, more often this year. Of course, Zimmermann insisted the same thing last year, then largely abandoned the pitch during the season.

“Like [Craig] Stammen said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to use it until he gives up a hit on it,’ ” McCatty said Sunday morning. “But I think he’s really going to be more focused on, especially down here, using his change-up.”

In his first start, Zimmermann stuck to his word. In three smooth innings against the Marlins, according to one scout, Zimmermann twirled four change-ups out of his 43 pitches. His fastball zipped between 93 and 95 mph, and his change-up came in at 83-84 mph. “That’s perfect,” Zimmermann said. “Right where I want it.”

Four out of 43 may not seem like much, but compared to last year it showed a clear emphasis. Zimmermann threw his change-up 2.2 percent of the time last season, not even bothering to throw it in many starts.

“He’s got a good change-up,” McCatty said. “Does he need it? It would be really helpful, beneficial, not just for him but anybody. I’m not going to say Jordan has to get it in order to be successful. It’s getting out there and trusting and doing it. Jordan’s other stuff is really good. He had a real good year last year. But this is something that can help him.”

McCatty had noticed a clear improvement in Zimmermann’s change-up during side sessions this spring – “outstanding,” McCatty said. Today, Zimmermann said he had a “good feel” for the pitch. To end his outing, Zimmermann got Greg Dobbs to roll over to first base in a count when he assumed Dobbs would be sitting fastball.

“I want to keep working on this change-up and get where I can throw it [with the count] 2-0, throw it whenever I want, basically,” Zimmermann said. “That’s the main goal right now.”

It backfired once. After a leadoff double to start the third, Zimmermann tried to fool Bryan Petersen with a 2-1 change-up. It missed the zone, and suddenly he faced a 3-1 count and ended up walking Petersen. He would eventually allow his only run on a sacrifice bunt and an RBI groundout.

“Not what I’m looking for,” Zimmermann said. The point is, he wants to use the spring to get comfortable throwing the pitch in those counts, and make it so he’s able to throw it for strikes.

His change-up aside, Zimmermann was very sharp for the first time out. He controlled his fastball down in the strike zone – all nine of his outs came either on the ground or via strikeout. He struck out Matt Downs swinging at a sinking fastball that dove like it had been cut in half. “I don’t what happened, if the ball had a little scuff in it or what,” Zimmermann said, cracking a small smile.

Zimmermann worked on his change-up, but still offered proof he doesn’t need it to be a dominant pitcher.

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