By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 11:30 PM
PHILADELPHIA - In his latest chance to fully reestablish himself in the major leagues, Jordan Zimmermann spent a significant portion of his short night turning around and looking up. He walked on the mound Saturday night at Citizens Bank Ballpark hoping he could recapture some of his brilliance. He walked off after offering another reminder it is not easy to pick up where you left off a year ago.
Zimmermann feels the same as he did before Tommy John surgery, and he has already shown himself capable of the same dominance he flashed last year. But, in the Washington Nationals' 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies before 45,222, Zimmermann encountered a small ballpark, a torrid lineup and upsetting - if not understandable - results.
In his fifth start since his return, Zimmermann lasted only three innings and allowed five runs on nine hits and a walk. His night included some progress - Zimmermann reached his best velocity, throwing 94-mph fastballs, and he struck out three Phillies, all of them swinging at sharp-breaking curveballs.
But the bottom line distracted Zimmermann from any positive developments. By the time Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez had hit home runs to the Citizen Bank Ballpark's unforgiving left field and Zimmermann had left the game, his ERA rose to 6.75.
"Definitely, I'm frustrated," Zimmermann said. "Just being able to get out there and get some innings is good, but I don't want to go out there and just get innings. I want to be able to put up some zeros."
This - the frustration, the ugly line scores, the skyrocketing ERA - is what happens when a pitcher gets a new elbow and sits out a year. Zimmermann expects excellence from himself. Reality dictates, for now, he will have to settle for something less.
"After going through the surgery and being out a year like he has, your command is just not going to be there," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "He's feeling good. There's no problems with his elbow. Hitting his spots is something that will come the more he pitches."
Zimmermann's most glaring issue surfaced when Werth led off the second, and Zimmermann threw a 3-2 slider. The pitch hardly moved at all, and Werth blasted it to the seats in left field. Zimmermann's fastball and curve have returned, but not the slider. "That's the big problem right now," he said.
McCatty suspects Zimmermann may not trust throwing his slider with the necessary extension or arm angle. The slider, thrown like a fastball except with a twist of the arm, tests the elbow most. Physically, Zimmermann has the fitness to do it. But he is not. His arm action is slightly to the side, the ball spins without breaking and batters wallop it.
"The more he throws and gets that feel and really trust he can get on top of his slider, it's going to be a good pitch," McCatty said. "It's just getting out there, getting some confidence."
Zimmermann found more trouble in the third. Chase Utley walked to lead off the inning. Howard jolted a drive to left. In most parks, it may have been a double or an out. "I thought it was a fly ball," Zimmermann said. Here, it eked over the fence and into a row of planted flowers. Two batters later Ibanez added a similar blast, giving the Phillies a 5-1 lead.
A night after throwing seven innings, the Nationals' bullpen - which has recorded 38 outs in two days - submitted another exhaustive and quality effort. Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard and Collin Balester held the Phillies scoreless for five innings and actually allowed for a glimmer of a comeback.
"We like that," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "But way too often our bullpen is getting up in the fourth inning to throw. That's not a formula for success."
The Nationals actually sent the go-ahead to the run plate twice in the eighth, when Ryan Madson walked Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina with one out. Michael Morse followed with an infield single to third base. The Nationals had the bases loaded and a chance to hand the Phillies a setback in their pursuit of further securing the National League East.
Wilson Ramos had a chance with the bases loaded. He roped a line drive to left field, but Ibanez sprinted in several steps and made the catch, nowhere near far enough for Dunn to tag up from third. Willie Harris, who had entered the inning before as a pinch-hitter for Justin Maxwell, struck out swinging through an 84-mph change-up. Madson had escaped, and the Nationals had left the bases loaded again.
Zimmermann had long departed by that point. By next season, he might be pitching deep into games and consistently shutting down opponents. After such a long wait, Zimmermann has only discovered that will take more time.
"The more he throws, the better he's going to be," McCatty said. "That's the idea. Getting him the innings, getting him the work and make sure he's ready to go full bore next year."