By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; D1
Jordan Zimmermann returned home to Wisconsin last August, his right arm in a cast and his mind uneasy. He did not worry about his future. He worried how long it would take to get there.
Even before the four-inch, telltale scar formed on the inside of his right elbow, Zimmermann had familiarized himself with pitchers who had endured Tommy John surgery. He knew the odds favored a full recovery as long as he worked, and work wasn't a problem for him. "An absolute bulldog," one of his pitching coaches called him.
But Zimmermann also knew the wait ahead. He would not even toss a baseball for four months. It would be 12 months at least, maybe 18, until he climbed a major league mound - one full year with no baseball. He'd gone two months before, never anything like this.
"I thought," Zimmermann said, "I'd never make it back."
The work - small milestones, lonely days in Florida's miserable heat, an endless string of rehab starts - is done. The wait for Zimmermann to reclaim his place among the sport's most promising young pitchers is over. On Thursday night, with his parents in the crowd at Nationals Park, Zimmermann will climb the mound and pitch in the major leagues for the first tine since July 18 of last year, when the sharp pain that shot through his arm every pitch became unbearable. Zimmermann, 24, will restart a career essential to the Washington Nationals' aim of building a team reliant on elite pitching, the future here again.
"I feel like I did when I made my debut," Zimmermann said. "It's kind of like a second debut, I guess. It's taken me a little over a year, a lot of hard work to get back to where I want to be. It's been a long trip, I guess you can say."
Zimmermann will not be able to return to his full form until next season. In every start he makes for the remainder of 2010, Zimmermann will be limited to five innings. "The bottom line on the deal is, if he re-injures the elbow, he might be done for the rest of his life," Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams said. "This guy is part of our future. We want to make sure we do that right thing."
Despite the continued caution, Zimmermann has reached a safe point in his recovery. Ligament-replacement surgery has advanced to the point that Zimmermann's risk is virtually the same as any other pitcher - except his elbow is probably in better condition.
The prevalence and success rate of Tommy John surgery did not make it any less harrowing for Zimmermann. In college at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a line drive smacked him in the face and broke his jaw. He missed two months, but he knew once his jaw healed he would return to normal. This was different. "When the arm is healing," Zimmermann said, "you don't know if you're ever going to be the same."
The first relief came in December, when he played catch from about 45 feet with Dan Janik, a personal trainer based in Wisconsin Rapids. "Hey," Zimmermann thought after his first throw, "it is fixed."
He reported early to spring training and played catch from 45 feet with Mark Grater, the Nationals' pitching rehab coordinator. He ran through drills with teammates and played light catch while they threw off the mound. And then "everyone left," Zimmermann said.
The Nationals headed north and Zimmermann stayed in Viera, Fla., with Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler. Other pitchers would report to extended spring training, get better and leave. Zimmermann was left with his bullpen sessions and the withering heat, temperatures above 100 degrees.
"Guys would come in for a week and head out of there," Zimmermann said. "I'm just marking off days on my calendar, hoping."
The turning point came on the Fourth of July. He left Florida - for good - and headed to Class A Potomac. He worked with pitching coach Paul Menhart, one of his first professional coaches.
"I saw no ill effects from the surgery," Menhart said. "He was throwing just as hard as he was prior to surgery."
While Zimmermann recaptured his strength, he lacked the touch for his offspeed pitches, especially his change-up. Throwing the pitch with quality requires constantly honing it, which Zimmermann had lost with surgery. At Potomac, while Zimmermann still lacked the feel for his change-up, Menhart ordered him to throw it often.
"He was all in," Menhart said. "I forced the catchers to call it and I forced him to throw it. He started loving it. He's still not got it quite where he wants it to be, but it's going to be.
"He's an absolute rock. He doesn't seem to have a pulse. Nothing seems to bother him. He's an absolute bulldog. Those are the kinds of guys you want to have on your staff. You can't tell if they're up 10, down 10. They're just going after it the same way, each and every pitch."
Zimmermann rose in the farm system one step at a time, his innings falling and then rising at each successive stop to build his arm strength. He complied 31 strikeouts, six walks and 1.59 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. He feels back to his old self. "My arm, knock on wood," Zimmermann said, "I haven't had any problems with it."
He thinks his change-up is even better. "I mean, I had eight months to work on it," Zimmermann said. "I kind of got it figured out a little."
On Tuesday, Class AAA Syracuse Manager Trent Jewett called Zimmermann and told him to pack his bags. For the second time, he had been called to the majors. Zimmermann spent the past few days finding an apartment and arranging hotel rooms for family and the host family he stayed with in the minors.
On Thursday, he'll pitch in front of them, no more wondering or waiting.
"He's finally here," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's back."