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Hard to gauge Zimmermann’s performance

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It was hard to learn much about Jordan Zimmermann’s continuing comeback from Tommy John surgery by watching his start Sunday at Nationals Park. He took the loss in an 11-2 shellacking by the Braves, and that’s the stat that matters most.

But he threw 84 pitches, 54 of them for strikes. He threw in the low 90s through his six innings of work. He gave up four hits, three runs — two earned — walked three and struck out two, and left trailing 3-1.

What he didn’t get was a lot of help behind him. After committing no errors — and pulling off some defensive gems — in their first two games, the Nationals had a bumbling day in the field that was more reminiscent of 2010, or 2009, or . . . you get the drift. This kind of game was supposed to be a thing of the past for the 2011 Nats.

“I felt good and I kept the ball down,” Zimmermann said afterward. “You’re going to have plays like that [in the field]. It’s baseball; you can’t be perfect every day.”

Before the game, both General Manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty said that there would be no limits on Zimmermann, that they’d let him go as long as he could. But afterward, Zimmermann said he could have gone another inning or two, and Manager Jim Riggleman agreed. “He could have gone back out there,” Riggleman said. “We’re trying to really look after him.”

One or two more innings out of Zimmermann might have avoided (or at least delayed) the subsequent meltdown by the bullpen, which allowed eight runs— eight — in the final three innings. It would at least have allowed Riggleman to call upon fewer relievers, which couldn’t have hurt. The combined ERA of the five relievers was 24.00.

“We’re trying to go seven innings or even further every time out,” McCatty said of his starters. “That’s the only way you’re going to win, is by your starting pitcher getting you to that point. We have an outstanding bullpen, but if we don’t get into the seventh inning, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough for anyone.”

It was certainly tough Sunday, when for one day, at least, “outstanding bullpen” was a bit of a misnomer. Afterward, Riggleman did what managers do and tried to assume some of the blame, criticizing himself for the way he had Doug Slaten and Chad Gaudin warm up, only to sit them down again, and get them back up.

Of course, it’s early. Three games into the season is hardly time to press the panic button. But the one thing the Nats didn’t accomplish in the offseason was landing a premiere starter. What they did think they’d fixed was their defense, replacing Adam Dunn at first with Adam LaRoche, getting Danny Espinosa settled in at second, and expecting better play from Ian Desmond as he matures. The entire starting outfield — Michael Morse, Rick Ankiel and Jayson Werth — is new from a year ago.

And so, in many ways, so is Zimmermann, who a year ago was recovering from his Tommy John procedure. His progress is the blueprint the Nats plan to follow in bringing back Stephen Strasburg from the same surgery. There are a lot of Tommy John success stories, including but not limited to Tommy John. Tim Hudson, who started for the Braves on Sunday, is another. He posted a 17-9 record with 139 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA last season after coming back from the same procedure. Sunday, he allowed one run on three hits for his first win of the season.

Those are the kind of numbers the Nats expect from Strasburg after he returns, but they also expect them from Zimmermann, who was drafted by the Nats in 2007 and made the rotation in 2009 before undergoing surgery in August of that year.

“I remember the time I had to tell him he needed Tommy John surgery,” Rizzo said Sunday. “It was really one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had with a player. And to see where he was that day and to see where he was pitching against Detroit in spring training and where he is today, you know, it’s really remarkable how far he’s come and I’m really fired up to see him not only today but throughout this year and throughout his career because he’s got great stuff and he’s a terrific kid.”

Zimmermann was out for most of last year but came back at the end of the season to pitch in seven games (1-2, 4.94 ERA). He was 2-2 this spring in Florida, with a 3.91 ERA in six starts. He retired seven batters in a row at one point; he also gave up two-out walks in the second and sixth innings. “He pitched pretty good with everything going on around him,” Riggleman said.

In other words, Zimmermann’s first start of the season wasn’t the problem Sunday. Everything going on around him, however — that’s another story.

© The Washington Post Company