Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann can’t break St. Louis Cardinals' hex on him in NLDS Game 2

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 8, 2012

Nobody is ever going to compare Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals’ fine right-hander, to immortal 363-game winner Warren Spahn — except today.

Some pitchers can’t beat certain teams. In fact, they fail so spectacularly that it defies belief. Time after time against their hex team, they give up two or three times as many runs as they do against anybody else. Nobody knows why. The general outlines of the domination may make sense, but not the preposterous size of the drubbings. And the curse can persist for years, even when the personnel of the dreaded jinx team has changed.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Perhaps the most famous of all such hexes was Spahn’s inability to beat the Dodgers in Ebbets Field. From 1946 through ’57, Spahn won 224 games for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves in the eight-team National League. But only three of them were in Brooklyn. Yes, three.

The Ebbets Field bandbox, plus right-handed Dodgers sluggers, drove Spahn’s record there to 3-12. Finally, the Braves simply skipped his turn when the words “at Brooklyn” appeared on their schedule, even when they were fighting for a pennant.

Zimmermann surely doesn’t want to reach that dreaded category with the St. Louis Cardinals. But he’s working on it after a three-inning, five-run bludgeoning here in a 12-4 Nats loss in Game 2 of a tied NL Division Series.

The 26-year-old has been in the top 10 in ERA the last two years — 3.18 and 2.94. Against St. Louis in six career starts, three of them recent, his ERA is 9.76 with 45 hits in 282 / 3 innings. If he were tipping his pitches, or simply yelled, “Fastball low and away” before he delivered a pitch, no team could hit him this hard. But the Cardinals do.

Zimmermann won’t meet the Cards again in this series. But St. Louis isn’t leaving the NL any year soon. Future meetings for high stakes are likely.

Monday’s debacle ruined a chance for the Nats to make a run at a decisive two-games-to-none lead. The Cards’ starter, Jaime Garcia, might have suffered a shoulder injury and was so wild that he lasted only two innings. The Nats got back-to-back home runs from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche and would have scored more than four runs with sensible base running.

But the Cards’ domination of Zimmermann made this a laugher, one that brought few smiles from the Nats’ starter. He does not like the Cardinals in a house or with a mouse, in a box or with a fox, in a car or in the dark. Jordan-I-Am does not like them anywhere. Okay, maybe on a train, if Dr. Seuss would let him throw the Redbirds under it.

“I didn’t do my part,” Zimmermann said after the game. “And I feel like if the starters don’t go and do their part, it kind of snowballs with the relievers.

“I had a good fastball. The off-speed was there,” he said. “I was just missing over the middle.”

There will be talk that Zimmermann is tired or this or that. None of it is true. If the Nats reach the NL Championship Series, he’ll be a no-pulse ace again. Guess who owns both the Reds and Giants? Yes, Zimmermann, with a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts.

“Certain teams, their eye lines up well for certain pitchers,” said LaRoche, whose father, an MLB pitcher, had such feast-or-famine foes. “There are some aces we just usually seem to get to, like Tim Lincecum.”

“Some star pitchers, you’re 15 for 35 against. But some middle-relief average guy gets you 0 for 15,” Zimmerman said. “That’s one of the reasons this game is so frustrating.”

Learning to break out of such bondage is part of pitching maturity. Manager Davey Johnson thinks that both Game 4 starter Ross Detwiler and Zimmermann are making good progress in changing their patterns, but still become predictable.

“He didn’t really make a lot of adjustments out there. He stayed one way — hard away — to a good fastball-hitting club,” Johnson said. “You have to use both sides of the plate. And he didn’t use his slider early on.”

In a four-run second inning, he threw 20 fastballs, three curves and only three sliders, his trademark out pitch. Zimmermann went into a duel and voluntarily fired more blanks than bullets.

“It happens to the best, like Mike Mussina [in Baltimore] for a while,” Johnson said. “Teams study every pitch. They figure out the pattern.”

The Cards are a right-handed-heavy lineup and Zimmermann has “reverse splits,” meaning that he pitches slightly more effectively against left-handers than right-handers. Also, Zimmermann lacks a change-up that he trusts, so the Cards, who seem to breed fastball hunters, are never thrown off stride.

Despite such analysis, part of the problem is just that the Cards have a bunch of boppers who think Zimmermann’s 96-mph fastball looks like a beach ball. The Reds and Giants don’t. It’s part of your baseball fate.

Only one pitcher who’ll take the mound the rest of this series has excellent numbers against St. Louis: Gio Gonzalez. The Cards have seen him twice recently and been shut out on five hits, then gotten one hit in five innings. Not one Cardinal takes decent hacks off him. When Gio throws strikes, he owns ’em.

“We’re in good shape. We took care of business here,” Jayson Werth said. “You work all year to get home-field advantage and now we have it.”

The battle simply resumes on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Nationals Park after a rout that has become typical of these teams. In the last six weeks, the Nats have thumped the Cards by scores of 8-1 and 10-0 and lost 10-4 and 12-2 before this latest crunching. In 2011, when the Cards were world champs, the Nats’ gaudiest win of the year was 10-0 over St. Louis in D.C.

“But all the lopsided games that went our way were in Washington,” Werth said. “All of theirs were here.”

Beware reading too much into one-sided games in a division series. Last year, all four series went five games. In all four, the winning team was outscored. Why? They lost the blowouts, but won the close games.

“We completed our mission — split on the road,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Now, we go home and take it.”

These teams are so close you couldn’t slide a sheet of newspaper between them. Nine times in the last 40 days, they’ve met, all the games vital. Here, the Cards have won 3 of 5 by a total score of 40-19. But in D.C., the Nats took 3 of 4 by 31-14. Overall, it’s Nats, 5 to 4.

Who owns whom? We’ll find out soon.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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