By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
JUPITER, Fla., March 16 -- The trip required two hours down and two more hours for the ride back north, all just to make an impression. The 27-year-old wanted to show he's healthy. The 22-year-old wanted to show he's ready. It was a long trip for a big opportunity, but Shawn Hill and Jordan Zimmermann relied on the one characteristic they share.
"He's composed," Hill said of Zimmermann.
"He's cool and calm," Zimmermann said of Hill.
Perhaps no day this spring provided a better snapshot of a rotation in flux. Perhaps no day this spring, too, provided a more contagious feeling of the possibilities. Hill looked healthy. Zimmermann looked ready. Together, they pitched five scoreless innings -- quick work, almost flawless -- and when the Nationals' 3-1 victory against Florida had ended, the team's coaches congregated in the locker room, still smiling, well aware that the quality of Washington's starting rotation depends on its biggest X-factor and its newest spring training star. Hill and Zimmermann, both, had given a reason for giddiness.
Though Hill and Zimmermann share 0.00 spring ERAs, that is where the recent similarities end. When Hill started the game, 17 days and one visit to orthopedist James Andrews had passed since his previous start. He had a 30-pitch limit, and nothing he did within that framework would erase concerns about his forearm and elbow difficulties. When Zimmermann replaced Hill to start the second inning, he was trying to build on a scoreless streak that encompassed the entire spring. Indeed, after this game, Manager Manny Acta wasn't even willing to contemplate Hill's next start. He was very much willing to suggest that Zimmermann is ready for the big leagues.
On Hill: "We'll see how he feels tomorrow. We're not planning anything today."
On Zimmermann: "I'm going to have to eat my words if I put him in the rotation today. But clearly, it's not about stuff or whether he can do it or not. We're going to make the decision on whether it's going to be the best for him or for us." He laughed. "Right now, it looks like it will be the best thing for us."
Before the team bus departed Washington's spring training headquarters in Viera, relief pitcher Garrett Mock kidded Hill about his limited workload; he would work one inning, nothing more, the team had told him.
"Shawn, I'm not a math expert, but you're about to spend four hours on a bus for 10 minutes of work," Mock later recalled saying. "Is that going to be worth it?"
Absolutely, Hill said.
Absolutely, because Hill needed to restart his bid to make the rotation. If he's healthy, one spot belongs to him. Three others (for John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera) are guaranteed. But after his previous start, on Feb. 27, when Hill complained of forearm tightness, the if-he's-healthy-talk went from a hypothetical to an unlikelihood. His first chance to show otherwise came by way of 16 pitches, 12 strikes. He worked the corners, and even mixed in a few change-ups and curveballs. His arm felt fine. No soreness. No irregularities. All the tests felt good: his 35 pitches in the bullpen, his 180-foot throwing drills in the outfield. All encouraging. He finished the inning with his second strikeout and tried to persuade pitching coach Randy St. Claire to let him go another inning.
St. Claire laughed.
"I had told him before the game that even if he threw four pitches, he still wouldn't go two innings," St. Claire said. "But that's him."
"I was pleasantly surprised, just not having thrown in a game in however many days," Hill later said. "I got into the game and it was boom-boom-boom. Why? I have no idea."
Zimmermann followed with more booms, even a few fireworks. He threw four innings, allowing two hits. He walked none and struck out six -- including two on full-count breaking balls. This spring, Zimmermann -- Washington's top-ranked prospect, who has never pitched above Class AA -- has pitched 12 1/3 innings. The Nationals are still waiting for him to allow a run.
On Monday, a section of scouts sat behind home plate, charting Zimmermann's 64 pitches, only 18 of them balls. They noticed a short delivery, a fastball that touched 94, a vicious slider that ranged between 83 and 86.
"There's been a buzz down here in Florida about the kid," said one scout, who follows teams in the National League East. "He hits the mitt. He's a strike-thrower. He's a four-pitch guy. I'm glad I got to see it myself. Of course, we'll probably see plenty of him this season."
Only once all afternoon did Zimmermann shake off catcher Wil Nieves. That came to lead off the fourth, when he faced former Washington infielder Emilio Bonifacio. With the count full, Nieves asked for a fastball. Zimmermann wanted something else.
"I have so much confidence in my slider right now," Zimmermann said, "I feel like I can throw it at any time."
Zimmermann went to the slider. Bonifacio whiffed, strike three.
"Not too many Class AA, first-time-in-big-league-camp guys can come out and make a pitch like that," Acta said.
St. Claire put it differently.
"Confidence in his stuff," he said. "It's makeup and poise."