The Nationals’ season is hanging from a cliff, not yet careening down the ravine but only a slip of a fingernail or two away. They just got stripped and sold for parts in Detroit. They are 11½ games behind a Braves team that forgot how to lose and 7½ back of the second wild-card spot. Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds calculation gives them a 0.5 percent shot to win the division and a 3.4 percent chance to get into the postseason. They are running out of time, if there is any time left at all.
If the Nationals are going to inject any hope into the final third of their season, it’s imperative they start tonight at Miller Park against the floundering Brewers. If they can’t sweep bottom-dwelling Milwaukee, or at least win the series, their series Monday against the Braves will lose pretty much any meaning it has left.
Jordan Zimmermann would normally be the pitcher the Nationals want with the ball on a night like tonight, when they need to know what they are going to get. For a month, though, Zimmermann has been more wild card than certainty.
(We will pause here for the obligatory reminder: No matter how well or poorly Zimmermann has pitched, the Nationals’ offense is the real problem. They have scored more than two runs in four of 14 games since the all-star break. More than anything, they need to score some runs.)
In five July starts, as he battled a stiff neck that held him out of the All-Star Game, Zimmermann punched up a 7.18 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .321 with a .589 slugging percentage. The Nationals have lost three straight Zimmermann starts, which had not happened since May 28, 2011.
The problem does not seem to be Zimmermann’s pure stuff. His fastball velocity remained consistent in July. In his two starts after the all-star break, he notched his fourth- and fifth-hardest average fastball of the season. After the Dodgers smashed him over just two innings in his first start out of the break, Zimmermann said he lacked command because of a long layoff.
Between his sore neck early in July and the oddly long break in the middle, it adds up that the typically precise Zimmermann would start missing spots, leaving balls over the plate and getting hit harder than usual. Zimmermann has had six days of rest because of off days since his last start, and in his career he has usually been less sharp the longer he has to rest.
Zimmermann will likely have hundreds of family and friends in Milwaukee, which is only a three-hour drive away from Auburndale, the tiny farming town where he grew up. Last year, in his first homecoming start, Zimmermann allowed one run over six innings. That’s typical Zimmermann, and the Nationals need that kind of pitcher to return tonight.