For his first starts of spring training, by necessity, Jordan Zimmermann played coy. The schedule lined up Zimmermann twice against division-rival Atlanta, and he did not want to show them his full repertoire. He sprinkled in few breaking balls and stuck mostly with fastballs and changeups. An American League opponent came to Space Coast Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, which allowed Zimmermann change his approach.
“I wasn’t holding anything back,” Zimmermann said.
Against a Yankees lineup that began with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, Zimmermann dominated for four perfect innings in a 3-2 Nationals victory. As he retired all 12 hitters he faced, Zimmermann struck out four – two swinging, two looking – and allowed only three balls out of the infield.
Zimmermann worked fast and pelted the strike zone, throwing 37 of his 54 pitches for strikes. His fastball reached 95 miles per hour and mostly zipped at 93 and 94, according to a few scouts’ radar guns. He mixed in a few changeups, and his slider broke like a Frisbee, even better than usual. “Everything worked,” one scout said.
The Nationals have received many fine individual performances this spring, but no one has been better in Viera than Zimmermann. In nine innings though his first three starts, Zimmermann has struck out nine while allowing three hits and a walk. He has yet to yield his first run. Spring training results mean essentially nothing, but dominance is dominance.
“I mean, I feel like I’m ready to go,” Zimmermann said. “Now it’s just building up the arm strength and getting up to 80, 90 pitches before the season starts. My stuff is pretty sharp right now. It’s just building arm strength.”
When Manager Matt Williams was asked what else he would like to see from Zimmermann, Williams smiled and said, “He needs to get some a-bs.” He seemed to be only half-joking.
Zimmermann typically has eye-popping spring training success, and there is a reason for that. Coming from his home in Wisconsin, Zimmermann arrives in Viera early in order to start throwing outside. He starts ahead of both his teammates and opposing hitters.
Zimmermann has not changed his routine, but he suspects he actually may round into shape too early in the year. In the past two seasons, Zimmermann has a 2.60 ERA in the first half. In the second half over those two years, his ERA was 3.84.
“I’m usually more ready than other guys at this time of the year,” Zimmermann said. “I start throwing pretty early. I want to be ready for opening day. I probably get ready too quick sometimes. I’m not saying that’s why my second-half numbers are so bad. But I feel like I’m ready, and I want to be ready for the season.”
Already, Zimmermann seems ready for opening day. It remains a question if he will actually take the ball opening day. Williams plans to set the Nationals’ rotation March 18, an off day in the Grapefruit League schedule. Stephen Strasburg, who has started opening day the past two years, seems to be the heavy favorite. But Williams said Zimmermann, an all-star and a 19-game winner last year, will receive consideration.
“Of course he will,” Williams said. “He won a whole bunch of games last year. He’s been really good.”
>>> Anthony Rendon continued an excellent spring on both offense and defense. He led off the game with a walk against Yankees starter CC Sabathia. In his second at-bat, he smoked a two-run double to the left field corner. He’s 6 for 18 with a walk, two doubles and a home run.
Rendon also made two nice plays at third base. Eduardo Nunez dropped a bunt down the third base line with two outs in the second. Rendon charged, fielded the bunt with two hands and rifled a quick throw that found Tyler Moore’s glove as if ball and mitt had been magnetized.
Rendon spent the majority of his rookie season last year as the Nationals’ second baseman. But third base, which he played in college and almost all his minor league career, is still probably his best position. Rendon could see time at third on days Ryan Zimmerman plays first base in place of Adam LaRoche.
“He’s used to it,” Williams said. “He’s probably more comfortable there than he is at second.”
>>> The Nationals’ win contained more signs of Matt Williams’s style. The Nationals executed two clinical hit-and-runs in the first two innings. Jayson Werth’s single to right moved Rendon to third in the first inning. In the second, Tyler Moore’s single allowed a running Danny Espinosa to cruise into third base.
In the field, the Nationals used big shifts against left-handed hitters Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira. Ian Desmond moved a few feet to the right of second base, giving the Nationals three infielders on one side.
>> The Nationals plastered four hits in three innings against Sabathia, who pitched like a fallen ace. One scout’s radar gun clocked Sabathia’s fastball at 86-87 miles per hour, topping out at 89.
>>> Drew Storen allowed a triple and a seeing-eye RBI single, but he also struck out three in an inning of work. His slider and two-seam fastball both had wicked movement. He froze McCann with a nasty two-seamer that started at McCann’s front hip and swung back over the inside corner. Storen’s fastball was clocked mostly at 93-94 mph.