By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 10:45 PM
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. - If Stephen Strasburg watched from the other side of the country, then Jordan Zimmermann's mastery Tuesday night provided all the proof he needed. Pitchers can improve while they recover from Tommy John surgery and then dominate when they return. In his second start back, Zimmermann was not just good as new. He was better than ever.
The promise of Zimmermann's start, the best of his career before or after his operation, devolved into the Washington Nationals' 1-0, 10-inning loss to the Florida Marlins before 18,506 at Sun Life Stadium. Between Zimmermann's dazzling six innings and Hanley Ramirez's dash home and acrobatic slide in the 10th, the Nationals lost a chance for their first four-game winning streak of the year and the opportunity to clinch their first victory in a road series since May 12. The Nationals' offense scored 27 runs in their previous three games but, in part because of a bizarre base-running play, could not muster one in 10 innings on Tuesday.
In terms of what really matters to the Nationals, the bitter end - Chad Tracy's single through the left side, Ramirez's slide under Ivan Rodriguez's mitt, Drew Storen walking off the field dejected - paled compared to what Zimmermann accomplished in his second major league start this year.
Zimmermann allowed the Marlins one hit and no walks over six scoreless innings, facing the minimum 18 batters and retired the final 14. He set a career high with nine strikeouts, eight of those coming in an utterly dominant span of 11 hitters. His final line looked like it was ripped from one Strasburg's greatest box scores. It was the best start of his career and, really, one of the best starts since baseball returned to Washington - no Nationals starter had ever faced the minimum for at least six innings.
Zimmermann peppered the edges of the strike zone, throwing 55 of his 86 pitches for strikes. He zipped his fastball between 92 and 94 mph, just as hard as before his surgery. Zimmermann believes his change-up - and maybe his curveball, too - improved during his year-long rehab. Four of his strikeouts came on the curve, the other five on his fastball.
Only a leadoff double by Gaby Sanchez in the second inning prevented Zimmermann from a perfect night. The next batter, Chad Tracy, flied out to the warning track in left, and Sanchez tagged at second as Roger Bernadina settled under the ball. Bernadina rocketed a throw to third, and Ryan Zimmerman scooped the ball and applied the tag. Replays showed Sanchez snuck his left hand on the base first, but he was called out.
Zimmermann had never struck out more than eight or allowed fewer than three hits in one start. But he will have to wait for his first major league win since June 25, 2009. The Nationals will limit him to five or six innings and no more than 100 pitches for the rest of this season. Even throwing six innings was pushing it - Zimmermann did not throw past the fifth in any of his 10 rehab starts.
Anibal Sanchez matched him in dominance and bested him in durability, throwing 126 pitches in seven innings and yielding no runs on three hits and a walk. He struck out seven, and the Nationals did not push a runner past second base against him. Zeros piled up on the scoreboard.
Once Zimmermann exited, the Nationals' bullpen continued its recent excellence. In their previous 10 1/3 innings entering Tuesday night, Nationals relievers had allowed two earned runs. On Monday, they accounted for nine strikeouts while recording 10 outs. On Tuesday, the only base runner in three innings against the bullpen before Storen entered in the 10th came on a walk by Joel Peralta. Tyler Clippard threw perfect innings in the eighth and ninth.
The Nationals could have scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th. Clay Hensley walked Nyjer Morgan and Alberto Gonzalez with out one. Adam Kennedy chopped to second base, not hard enough for a double play to be turned. But when Emiliano Bonifacio flipped to second, either Morgan, third base coach Pat Listach or both thought Ramirez would throw to first.
Morgan kept running home and barreled into catcher Brett Hayes as the ball arrived. He dazed Hayes, but he could not jar the ball loose and the inning ended.