By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
VIERA, Fla., March 10 -- Jordan Zimmermann appeared quite serious Tuesday when he assessed his latest spring outing thusly: "Unfortunately, today I didn't get settled in too well. I guess you'll have those days." He all but sighed.
Only moments before, his manager, Manny Acta, had considered precisely the same performance, and come up with a different determination. "He continues," Acta said, "to impress everybody here."
The Nationals have assembled here in search of truly positive, promising story lines, and in a spring otherwise filled with controversy -- the demolition and reconstruction of their operation in the Dominican Republic, the resignation of General Manager Jim Bowden -- Zimmermann has emerged as a legitimate prospect for a franchise that desperately needs several.
He is just 22 and was hurling for Wisconsin-Stevens Point at this time two years ago, recovering, too, from having two plates and 11 screws inserted in his jaw, which was broken by a line drive. Now he is perhaps two or three more effective outings from breaking camp with the Nationals and being inserted into the starting rotation, in part because, as near-namesake Ryan Zimmerman said, "He's not afraid out there -- at all."
"That's what I was told, that this kid's a different kid," Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "And when he came into camp, you can see it. He's all business. No messing around when he takes the field. When he's warming up, he's completely focused on what he's doing."
The third outing of Zimmermann's first major league spring training came against the New York Mets in what became a 5-5 tie Tuesday. And even though, by his own estimation, he "really had to battle all day," he has yet to allow a run this spring. He allowed the first two Mets to reach base, then retired the next three, two on strikeouts. Two innings later, he allowed his first walk of the spring, one that was followed by a single, and induced an inning-ending double play.
And though his outing ended after 3 1/3 innings -- he was scheduled to go four, but his pitch count grew to 62 -- his numbers are undeniable: 8 1/3 innings, four hits, no runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts. Yes, they are spring numbers, early spring numbers at that. But for Washington, couple the performances with Zimmermann's countenance, and they represent promise.
"I'm real comfortable," Zimmermann said. He shows that in the clubhouse by not making a peep, hardly saying a word.
"I only see him here at the national anthem or when he's pitching," Acta said. "That's the way he is. He hasn't been intimidated at all."
Go back to college, then, for one of the first examples of how Zimmermann handled a situation that would rattle most anyone. On Feb. 20, 2007, as the Wisconsin-Stevens Point Pointers were preparing for their first few games of the season, Zimmermann threw a live, simulated game indoors. He worked behind a screen, and his stuff was, as Acta calls it now, "electric."
"He probably struck out five of the first six guys he faced," said his coach, Pat Bloom. Bloom's brother Garett, then a sophomore player, stepped in, and Zimmermann quickly got two strikes on him. But on the third pitch, "He stayed on it," Pat Bloom said, "and took it up the middle."
"I kind of just ducked out of the way," Zimmermann said. But it didn't work. The ball caught him flush in the right side of his face. That night, in the emergency room, Bloom sat with Zimmermann, Zimmermann's mother and his girlfriend. His junior season, not to mention his status in the June draft, appeared at stake.
"People would think that his draft prospects, all that stuff, would be on his mind," Bloom said. "But that night, if you had seen him, he was all about, 'I just want to get back to my team as soon as possible.' He didn't want to let them down."
Even if it meant pitching with a jaw filled with wires and held together by rubber bands, so inflexible that, at a team banquet, the rest of the Pointers dined on chicken and meat, and Zimmermann struggled to get through a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy. He lost 10 or 12 pounds, but he made his debut March 17 in Florida -- less than a month after the incident.
"My biggest fear was that he would be gun-shy," Bloom said. "But nothing really changed about him on the mound."
What changed, as it turned out, was how pro scouts viewed him. Because Stevens Point, Wis., isn't on the nonstop flights that teams prefer, many scouts based their assessments of Zimmermann on his performances during the Pointers' swing through Florida, when he was still regaining weight and velocity. Nationals scout Jeff Zona, though, stayed on Zimmermann, and grew to like him more and more. Any chance he got, he reminded Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' assistant general manager, that he had to see him.
"He kept him on my radar," Rizzo said, "and was really a pest about it."
So late in the Zimmermann's junior season came the kind of story scouts love to tell and retell, the kind when the snow gets deeper and the flights get longer. On Tuesday, Rizzo said he took two connections and a three-hour drive to get to Green Bay, Wis., to see Zimmermann pitch in the Division III College World Series. Turns out, it was in Appleton. No matter. Rizzo saw him.
"When I'm running a draft, I have a list, and the 'must-gets' go on that list," Rizzo said. "He was the first guy of the 'must-gets.' "
Thus, the Nationals took him in the second round, with the 67th pick. Last year, at Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg, he combined to go 10-3 with a 2.89 ERA, striking out 134 in 134 innings. Now, halfway through his first big league camp and entering just his third full pro season, he is carrying himself just as he did then. It just might result in providing the kind of promise his organization truly needs.