“Since I’ve been here, that’s the best-pitched game I’ve seen,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
The Nationals franchise had never before witnessed such pitching brilliance. The last time a Washington baseball team notched back-to-back one-hitters was in August 1917 when Walter Johnson and Doc Ayers achieved the feat at Griffith Stadium against the Chicago White Sox.
Zimmermann thrives in the strike zone. He noticed on Thursday that Gonzalez had found success low in the zone against the Reds and planned to execute the same game plan. He looked up the tendencies of the Reds hitters and found them to be aggressive, particularly on the first pitch.
The Reds rolled over inviting pitches and sent balls into the outfield for outs. Zimmermann induced 11 groundouts and 12 flyouts. He was so efficient he tossed 10 pitches or fewer in five innings. While some pitchers shy away from contact, Zimmermann welcomed it. He offered up his best pitches to hit.
“I’m just throwing strikes and trying to get ahead of guys and not trying to get deep in the counts and letting them put the ball in play,” he said. “I don’t care about strikeouts. I don’t want to walk anyone.”
To throw off aggressive hitters the second and third time through the order, Zimmermann started at-bats with off-speed pitches. He fired curveballs at fastball-hitting Xavier Paul. He tossed first-pitch sliders to Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier, another fastball killer. He threw 12 off-speed first pitches.
In the seventh inning, Zimmermann was hit in the non-throwing hand by a comebacker, a minor bruise that wouldn’t prevent him from finishing the game.
He allowed his only walk of the night to eighth-place-hitter Corky Miller with two outs in the eighth inning. For the subsequent at-bat, Reds Manager Dusty Baker pulled his starting pitcher, Homer Bailey, for a pinch hitter. Jack Hannahan fought Zimmermann through six fastballs. Then with a 2-2 count, Zimmermann reared back and fired an 86-mph slider that dove into the strike zone for strike three swinging.
In the bottom of the inning, Zimmermann emerged from the dugout and walked to the batter’s box, allowed to complete the game. He stood at 86 pitches and the home crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“He was going to keep going unless he couldn’t walk out there,” Johnson said.
As Zimmermann warmed up in the bullpen before the game, he didn’t feel sharp. Once he took the mound, it all clicked. The ball exploded out of his hand. His delivery felt clean. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” he said.
After some inconsistent starts to begin the season that magnified the team’s offensive woes, the Nationals rotation has hit a groove. When the offense struggled last season, as it has now, the pitching carried the team. Now, it can do the same to buy time for sleepy bats to awake.
“This pitching staff is so good they’re going to keep you in ballgames,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Obviously, in the beginning of the year, a little inconsistent, but I think they’re starting to find their groove and get comfortable. Now I think they’re feeling good.”
Bryce Harper, who has almost single-handedly carried the lineup, ignited the only offense that Zimmermann needed. He lashed a splitter from Bailey into the right field corner for a triple in the fourth inning. As he dashed around the basepaths, his helmet flew off — as has become his style — somewhere near second base, and he slid safely into third.
Sensing a low-scoring game between two dueling pitchers, Baker called for the infield to play in against cleanup hitter Jayson Werth. Werth guided the second pitch of the at-bat, a 95-mph sinker down the middle, past diving second baseman Brandon Phillips and into shallow right field to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. With Zimmermann pitching, one run would be enough.
“My guys, if they attack hitters like they have the last two days, it’s gonna be a problem,” Johnson said. “I don’t care — good hitting team, bad hitting team. You don’t get a lot of pitches to look at, you’re behind all the time, mixing your pitches up, low pitch counts, you’re feeling strong all the way through that game.”