Jordan Zimmermann says neck is fine; Ross Ohlendorf to start in Friday’s doubleheader

(JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

(JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Jordan Zimmermann suffered the shortest outing of his career Sunday, his first start back from an all-star break that he used to rest his lingering stiff neck. Although he allowed seven runs on eight hits and two walks over two innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Zimmermann attributed his struggles to poor command and not the lingering neck discomfort.

“It was just one of those days where nothing was working,” he said. “The neck feels awesome,” he later added.

Zimmermann attended but sat out his first all-star game Tuesday at New York’s Citi Field because he and the Nationals wanted him to rest. He has battled neck stiffness for two months. Zimmermann had 10 days between his previous start and Sunday, and the right-hander hasn’t pitched as well on extra rest in his career. He admitted the layoff may have played a factor in his command issues. He said he took four days off from throwing during the all-star break.

“I threw when I was home a little bit,” he said. “When I was back, I had a few days to throw. I had plenty enough time to throw and get ready. But the command wasn’t there [Sunday].”

In a 40-pitch second inning, Zimmermann labored. The Dodgers batted around and he surrendered two home runs and six hits while walking two. He tried to escape the inning by throwing low in the strike zone. “I’ve pitched the same way, and some games you get away with a few mistakes and some games whatever you throw up there is getting hit hard,” he said. Sunday “was one of those days.”

At first, Manager Davey Johnson feared that Zimmermann’s struggles were because his neck was acting up again. (Zimmermann has said his neck stiffness doesn’t affect him while pitching, just when he cranes it to look at first or home, or when he wakes up in the morning.)

“I think it was just 10 days in between pitching, and he left a lot of balls right in the middle of the plate,” Johnson said. “His breaking ball didn’t have a lot of break to it. He should be fine. We should be past that.”

Zimmermann was relieved by right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, who fired six strong innings. He hadn’t pitched in nine days, but he calmed the Dodgers offense, allowing only two runs on six hits. In 20 2/3 relief innings this season, Ohlendorf has a 2.18 ERA.

With his strong showings and a need for a starter in Friday’s doubleheader against the New York Mets, Johnson will tab Ohlendorf. The right-hander has spent most of his major league career as a starter and will make his second start of the season for the Nationals. (Zimmermann is slated to start the other game of the doubleheader.) “That was an outstanding effort,” Johnson said. “It was a good tune-up.”

Against Andre Ethier in the fourth inning, Ohlendorf even uncorked a 97-mph fastball. A few teammates later alerted him of that fastball’s speed. Ohlendorf attributes his increased velocity to his wind-up and to his finally feeling healthy after previous injuries. Last season, his fastball averaged 90.8 mph, the lowest of his career. This year, it is up to 92.6 mph.

“It’s been four years since I hit 97, which was nice,” he said. “I feel like I pitch better when I back off a little bit the last few innings. It was nice to know that I have that arm strength right now.”

Now Ohlendorf will have a full five days to rest and prepare for a start instead of the irregular schedule of a reliever. His role will be jumbled again, in part, because of his success and versatility. “I’ll do whatever Davey wants me to,” he said.

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