By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Almost nobody saw it. Jordan Zimmermann's debut was years in the making -- Washington discovered him at a tiny Division III outpost in Wisconsin, drafted him, nurtured him, watched him develop, delayed his big league debut, allowed the hype to ratchet up -- and by the time the organization's most polished, promising pitching prospect took the mound last night, it was 9:15 p.m., and the puddles outnumbered the people.
Zimmermann's debut, as a result, borrowed its glimmer from something more permanent -- and more important -- than the bright-lights stage. The game was delayed by rain, then interrupted by rain. The smallest crowd in Nationals Park history, 12,473, paid for tickets. By the time it ended at 12:12 a.m. -- long after the final Metro train departed the Navy Yard station -- roughly 70 people remained in the seats.
The significance of Zimmermann's performance was best measured not by how many saw it, but by what it yielded. First, a 3-2 win against the Atlanta Braves -- a much-needed lift in the 2009 freefall. Second, a moment when potential pivoted toward payoff. In Zimmermann's six innings, the 22-year-old dared a little danger, escaped most of it, worked quickly and stayed aggressive. He allowed six hits and two runs -- both on a Matt Diaz fourth-inning home run. All the firsts connected just so: A first quality start, a first win, a first step.
"Pretty impressive," Manager Manny Acta said. "Especially considering that this wasn't the nicest day to play baseball in. He just went out there and gave us a tremendous effort."
The first pitch of Zimmermann's career was a 95 mph fastball, a called strike. The first out of Zimmermann's career came on the second pitch, via a fly ball to left. The first inning of Zimmermann's career ended after seven pitches, all strikes. The first evidence of Zimmermann's occasional susceptibility to error came on pitch No. 8, a ball. Pitch No. 9 was a hit. From there, he sometimes battled.
Zimmermann proved efficient, though, at dealing with jams -- occasionally with help. When Casey Kotchman led off the second with a soft double over first base? He was thrown out at third base trying to advance on a pitch low in the dirt. When two of the first three Atlanta hitters swatted singles in the third? Yunel Escobar chopped into a double play. When Chipper Jones began the fourth with a triple into the right field corner? Zimmermann delayed damage by inducing a popout, a groundout, and -- well, wait a minute.
Just one strike away from escaping that jam, Zimmermann made his lone mistake. His 0-2 pitch to Diaz crossed the plate belt-high and left the stadium on a beeline toward left-center. The two-run homer bounced into the visitors' bullpen.
"I mean I thought it went as good as it could," Zimmermann said. "I got the key outs when I needed them."
The Braves had a 2-0 lead. The also had Derek Lowe, whose team had won 10 of his previous 11 starts against Washington.
The Nationals, though, did just enough, beginning from the moment they fell behind. With two hits, two walks and a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth, Washington forced a tie. They took the lead in the sixth, when Jesús Flores, who has struggled with situational hitting for much of the first two weeks, bounced an RBI single between shortstop and third base, scoring Elijah Dukes, who had singled two batters earlier.
Once it took the lead, all Washington had to do was finish the game with its tightrope-walking bullpen. Again, rain interrupted the flow. At 11:16 p.m., with two outs in the eighth and Joe Beimel about to finish the inning, a hard rain intensified.
Thus, the top of the ninth inning was witnessed with the dugouts fuller than the seats. Joel Hanrahan, who'd blown two saves in the prior series, entered with his traditional music -- a Brooks & Dunn song -- and what sounded like a few rows of church clapping. He retired Chipper Jones on a grounder to short. He walked a hitter, but retired the final two, including Diaz on a strikeout.
"I mean, it was a long two weeks I should say, going up to Class AAA Syracuse and knowing I'm coming down here on April 19th. Then [the debut] got pushed back to the 20th, and I get here and it's raining again," Zimmermann said. "So it was a pretty long two weeks. I was just happy we got the game in tonight."