The Nationals have been outscored by 19 runs after a month’s worth of games. That’s not “early.” That’s a problem. The Braves have handled them five times this year, and nine straight dating back to last season. Davey Johnson seemed to be at a loss after Tuesday night’s debacle, suggesting he’ll change the lineup, just because. Remove Bryce Harper from the offense, and the Nationals are hitting .217.
Now for the good news, about the best thing the 13-14 Nationals could hear in the middle of another three-game losing streak: Jordan Zimmermann is pitching tonight.
While Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg have battled inconsistency, Zimmermann has been one of the best starters in baseball. He’ll take a 2.00 ERA to the mound at Turner Field, coming off a 91-pitch one-hitter against the Reds.
After he threw the first shutout of his career Friday night, Zimmermann received a text from rehab coordinator Steve Grater. For the past couple years, Grater had teased him for throwing a “February change-up” — for working on the pitch during spring training then shelving it for the season. Now, Zimmermann had used a change-up to help him pitch the game of his career.
“Pretty good changeup,” Grater wrote.
“Yeah. All two of them,” Zimmermann replied.
“Two more than last year,” Grater wrote back.
Zimmermann, who tonight will try to replicate his one-hitter against the Reds, is not throwing many more change-ups than the previous two years. But he has sprinkled in one or two more per game. In 2011 and 2012, Zimmermann threw his change-up 2.2 percent of the time. This year, he’s nudged that to 3.4 percent. It may not be a huge difference, but it has been a factor in Zimmermann’s two complete games in his first five starts.
“I think it really helps,” Zimmermann said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’m having a little bit of success right now. I throw it a few times early, and I really don’t have to throw it anymore, because those guys go back to the dugout and say, ‘He threw me a change-up.’ The lefties get up there, and they’ve got that in the back of their mind, that I can throw it any time.”
The change-up in and of itself has not been a great pitch. But the threat of the change-up has made his fastball more effective. Zimmermann’s fastball, according to FanGraphs.com, has been worth 3.15 runs above average per 100 times thrown, which makes it the most valuable fastball in baseball through one month.
“I think the change-up is good. But it also helps out the fastball a lot,” Zimmermann said. “When they’re on the fastball, I can throw the change-up in there and have them tone it back a little bit, have them not just sitting on the fastball, give them something else to worry about.”
During Zimmermann’s rookie season, his biggest obstacle came when he faced a lineup for the third time. Some of that, surely, happened because he lacked stamina following Tommy John surgery. But he has also learned how to pace himself over games, saving different looks for later innings.
“At the beginning of my career, I obviously struggled going through the lineup for the third time. I’ve learned to not show them everything the first time through, if I can get by with just the fastball and maybe a couple sliders or something. When I first came up, I was throwing everything from the first pitch on. They see everything, and they know what I have. Later in the game, they’re not fooled by anything.”
Tonight, the Nationals need another big effort from Zimmermann. In a season when little has gone well — and everything has gone horribly against the Braves — the one thing they have been able to count on is him.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Durham 7, Syracuse 1: Eury Perez went 2 for 4. Jeff Kobernus went 1 for 4 with a double. Yunkesy Maya allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings on five hits and three walks, striking out two. Xavier Cedeno struck out two in a perfect relief inning.
Harrisburg 6, New Britain 2: Caleb Clay allowed no earned runs in 5 2/3 innings on three hits and three walks, striking out. Ian Krol allowed no runs in 1 1/3 relief innings, walking one and striking out three as he lowered his ERA to 0.61. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 4 with a walk. Justin Bloxom went 1 for 3 with a home run.
Potomac 4, Carolina 3: Michael Taylor went 2 for 4. Taylor Hill allowed three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings on six hits and one walk, striking out one.
Potomac 5, Carolina 0: Blake Schwartz allowed no runs in five innings on three hits and a walk, striking out six. Cutter Dykstra went 2 for 3. Caleb Ramsey went 3 for 3 with two doubles.
Hagerstown was off.