Getting Their Z's May Wake Up Nats

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Once conventional wisdom takes hold, all facts that confirm such a view are immediately magnified, and all data that contradict it are dismissed as anomalies.

Every day, the Nats (short for "Natinals") seem to live this truth in some new and painful but often undeserved way.

Because the Nats have been losers for three years, lost 102 games last season and started 1-10 this year, then everything about them must be awful. What other team could turn "Elijah: Up at Dawn to Help Little Leaguers" into "Dukes Fined, Benched and Threatened with Class AAA for Being Five Minutes Late." Anybody seen Shawn Hill lately, since the Nats released him last month? Oh, he's in the Padres' rotation (3.60 ERA). Arm still attached to body.

Conversely, anything that goes right for the Nats must be a fluke. If they make a $188 million bid for Mark Teixeira, sign Adam Dunn for two years for $20 million, grab free agent Joe Beimel or lock up Ryan Zimmerman to a five-year deal for $45 million, it must be a hallucination. The Nats are cheap, right? Don't let new facts interfere.

And if Jordan Zimmermann, 22, beats Braves ace Derek Lowe, 3-2, in his major league debut, so efficient he needs just 72 pitches for six crisp innings, then you can be sure it will end after midnight in a drizzle with only 70 fans in the park by the last pitch.

Even Ryan Zimmerman, who jokes "I guess I'm the other Zimmerman now," has felt the weight of conventional thinking. Has he signed up to be the Face of the Farce?

"I went home after we hit 1-10 and thought to myself, 'You should feel horrible about your team,' " he said. "And Sunday night, after we blew a lead in the ninth for the third straight day, that really was bad. It just hit us all right in the face."

However, Zimmerman thought for a few minutes. He visualized the new Nats lineup with Cristian Guzmán and Nick Johnson in front of him and Dunn, Dukes and either Austin Kearns or Josh Willingham behind him. And Jesús Flores all the way down at seventh.

He thought about the last two starts by John Lannan (3.65 ERA), as well as the quality starts in their last outings by Scott Olsen and Shairon Martis. And, yes, he thought about how much reworking the shattered bullpen would need.

"I know I'm supposed to look at our record and feel bad. But I feel good about the team we've actually got here," Zimmerman said. "Dunn told me to look at 100-at-bat chunks of the season. That's about a month. Sometimes, you're going to go 35 for 100 and look great. The next month, you may go 20 for 100 and look bad. But at the end of the season, it works out like it should. And this team will have a 20-10 month this year."

But the two biggest issues for the Nats are not the two Zimmerman(n)s. For months, the Nats have been trying to change both the reality and the perception of their initial "frugality." Soon, the Nats will need to sign the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, who may be Stephen Strasburg, whose agent is Scott Boras.

History shows that drafting any pitcher is more dangerous than most fans realize. However, it has been essential, before using such an important pick, for the Nats to prove -- with dollars, not words -- that they are a normal major league team. Not extravagant. Just normal.

So far, they appear to have done it. The Teixeira negotiations were with Boras, so he knows the dollars on the table were real. The Dunn deal was at the same or higher prices than were paid for free agent outfielders Milton Bradley, Raúl Ibáñez and Pat Burrell. Beimel's $2 million was a market contract. Olsen and Willingham got sensible market-value deals without going to arbitration. And most importantly, Zimmerman's $45 million is right in the range of recent contracts for Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Nick Markakis.

So in less than a year, a pitching rotation that includes Zimmermann, and perhaps Strasburg, could force a complete reevaluation of current conventional Nats wisdom.

How good is Z'nn? His last start in Class AAA was rained out, so he could only pitch a simulated game. Then his debut was pushed back from Sunday to Monday. Then his start was delayed 130 minutes by rain. Then he had to work in intermittent cold drizzle. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. How do you like adversity?

First inning: Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike, strike. Seven pitches, Braves down in order. Radar gun: 95, 96. His one bad pitch was an 0-2 fastball he should have wasted but left over the plate for a two-run homer. Z'nn also struck out Chipper Jones on a curve, probably his best pitch, that broke a foot and a half.

The day after Mike Mussina's debut, I knew I had seem something special. I simply knew. I doubt Z'nn's in that exalted class. Don't demand the moon. His four-seam fastball might be a bit straight. His two-seam fastball sinks fine. His curve and slider are "plus pitches" in scout lingo. Change-up? No verdict. His control and mechanics are excellent, but his command, on Monday, was merely good. He got enough of the heart of the plate to give up six hits.

However, he and Lannan are already the Nats' best starting pitchers. In a month, a revised estimate may be necessary.

All recent mockery of the Nats is based in reality: the "resignation" of Jim Bowden, the Natinals, the 0-7 start, the night Mike Rizzo fired half the bullpen. And to add pain, Monday's announced crowd of 12,473, on a miserable night with minimal walk-ups, probably gives us a good guess at the current season ticket base. Last year's worst crowd: 20,487. No wonder the Nats are still "undecided" if they'll announce their season ticket sales.

Nonetheless, the Nats' hopes for significant improvement this season remain real -- if, but only if, their young pitching brings stability, not chaos.

Zimmerman, who's just re-upped with this motley outfit, says: "This is where I want to be playing a long time. I started at ground zero with this organization, and I want to be here when we are in the playoff picture every year. I really think that's where we're going. . . . But first, we have to turn around this season."

The other Zimmermann should help.

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