Calm and Cool, Zimmermann Set for Big League Debut

Jordan Zimmermann could provide some hope to a crumbling season.
Jordan Zimmermann could provide some hope to a crumbling season. (By David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

AUBURNDALE, Wis. -- There's a deer blind up a tree somewhere out beyond the railroad tracks and rows of corn that lead back to more populated areas of civilization. Jordan Zimmermann visits the hideout when he returns home, enjoying the solitude it affords.

Zimmermann learned to be skilled and poised and lucky here in this town of 738 residents. On its nearby lakes and amid its surrounding woods, he waited. He relaxed and thought about life. And if some unsuspecting animal came within range, he fired. But mostly he liked the relaxing and the thinking, the quiet of it all. Hunters aren't supposed to say much when tracking prey. He liked that, too.

Tonight, Zimmermann will take the mound at Nationals Park -- a setting far different from the rural Midwest hunting spots he and his buddies frequent -- in his major league debut against Atlanta as the fifth starter in a Washington rotation in dire need of a lift.

The Nationals -- who have dropped 10 of their first 11 games -- need Zimmermann to be skilled and poised and lucky. They need him to ignore the tens of thousands of eyes that will peer down upon him and imagine he is back in the country with only a pair of buddies there to be astounded by his precocious talent.

Prior to this season Zimmermann, 22, had not pitched above Class AA Harrisburg, yet the right-hander is expected to provide some semblance of hope to an organization foundering once more against an ominous current. With a cold, static stare -- the one that has come to define his public image -- he intends to pitch as he always has, though he knows it likely won't be that simple.

"I'm not nervous right now," Zimmermann said in a recent phone interview. "But I'm sure I'll be nervous before the game."

Those who know Zimmermann well say he speaks only in brief, understated fragments. It's not that he is void of personality or emotion, they say. Rather, he is reserved to a painstaking degree because it is the mode in which he best operates.

Mark Brost, a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Auburndale Elementary, keeps in touch with his former pupil via text messages, typically around three per week. Brost, who also coached Zimmermann at Auburndale High, considers himself fortunate to garner a response longer than three words.

Last week, Brost shot Zimmermann a text asking if he was getting nervous with his big league debut fast approaching. The response: "Why? Should I be?"

"Half the time, he's the kind of person you can't feel a pulse on," Brost said. "He could come into any situation. I used him as a closer in some situations. When I used him there it was because we needed him to put out the fire right now. He'd come in and it was just like nothing. His facial expression, his demeanor, the way he approached every situation was just cold. Flat-out cold."

As a fifth-grader, Zimmermann blended in with the rest of his classmates, Brost said, until recess. Brost and other teachers would watch in awe as Zimmermann picked up junior high-sized footballs and launched them 50 yards. The kid would turn around and wonder what all the commotion was about.

During his freshman year at Auburndale High, Zimmermann was playing catcher and threw out a senior on an opposing interconference team who had not previously been caught stealing in his high school career. Threw him out by two full steps, in fact. "Why would he try to steal on me?" Zimmermann later asked Brost.

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