By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 12:00 AM
NEW YORK - At the start of last October, Jordan Zimmermann watched the end of the Washington Nationals' season on television from home in Wisconsin, "rehabbing every single day," he said. He could not throw a baseball. One year later, on Friday night, Zimmermann walked off Citi Field with sweat beaded on his cheeks, having announced his comeback as completed. He endured Tommy John surgery, and he won.
Well after Zimmermann allowed one run in six innings, Josh Thole gave the New York Mets a 2-1 victory before an announced crowd of 29,424 with a walk-off home run off Tyler Clippard in the 10th inning. The Nationals' offense failed to bulwark Zimmermann and an otherwise dominant performance by their bullpen by producing three hits and striking out 14 times.
Almost nothing hung in the balance in terms of the final result. But the windy, chilly fall night gave Zimmermann the chance to leave one final impression for 2010. With diminished velocity - 92 mph on his fastball, down from a high of 96 in his last start - he dominated with precise control and sharp breaking pitches. He sprinkled in his slider and unleashed his curveball, which is decidedly more devastating than ever.
His start provided the Nationals with far more than quality innings and the chance to win a game that was meaningless in the standings. He offered first-hand evidence that time and hard work can overcome the foremost hurdle facing the Nationals' future. Out in San Diego, three weeks after he removed the cast from his Tommy John surgery, Stephen Strasburg is rehabbing every single day, and he cannot throw a baseball.
"It kind of gives us a little hope for Strasburg," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Strasburg can look at that, what Jordan did. If he can work the same way and come back to his game the way Zimmermann has come back to his, that says a lot for our future."
Zimmermann did not know what to expect last August, when Lewis Yocum - the same specialist who operated on Strasburg - performed his surgery. The program delightfully unfolded according to plan. He hit every checkpoint on schedule. He made 10 starts in the minors and seven in the majors. The recovery portion of his career, he believes, is through.
"I really don't know what more to expect, but I don't see anything else happening," Zimmermann said. "I feel good. [My arm] feels awesome. It comes back good, better than before. I think I'm ready."
On Friday, in his last start, Zimmermann's only run allowed came on a solo home run. In the fourth, Ike Davis blasted a first-pitch, 89-mph fastball over the right-center field fence. After Davis's homer, Zimmermann retired the final eight batters he faced, and he ended his season by throwing a 92-mph fastball by Angel Pagan.
In 2011, Zimmermann will be counted upon from opening day, in the top half of the Nationals' starting rotation, a responsibility ensured by his progress since returning in late August. He made seven starts this season. Three of them, including his last two, were brilliant. In his last 11 innings, Zimmermann allowed two runs on six hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.
"We're excited," Clippard said. "To have him in the rotation is huge for us. He's going to be a mainstay for our team, and a guy that's going to do great things for us. It's great to see him get back to where he was and where he can be. And it's only going to get better."
On Friday, Zimmermann was "about the only bright spot," Riggleman said. Michael Morse ensured Zimmermann would not take the loss by launching a massive solo home run to center in the seventh off left-handed starter Pat Misch, who used the Nationals as foils for the best start of his wayward career. Misch, who entered 3-15 lifetime, stuck out a career-high 10 in eight innings. He twice whiffed Adam Dunn, who since hitting a walk-off home run Tuesday night is 0 for 8 with six strikeouts.
The Nationals' indefatigable bullpen again gave the Nationals a shot, even with a degree of difficulty. In the seventh inning, the Mets' Mike Hessman skied a high fly ball to left field, held up by the wind whipping in. In the dugout, Riggleman looked away, assuming an out, but Justin Maxwell and Nyjer Morgan collided. Maxwell got the error; Morgan took the blame.
"Basically, I should have got out of his way," Morgan said. "I'll take that one. It's just one of things where it was a little bit of miscommunication."
No matter. Joel Peralta struck out the next batter and induced a popup to escape without any damage on the scoreboard. After he exited, Sean Burnett ushered the game into extra innings by setting down all six batters he faced.
Clippard's 3-1 fastball to Thole spoiled the victory and limited the Nationals' best potential win total to an even 70. In the long view, after Zimmermann had completed his comeback, that hardly seemed to matter.
"When I first had the surgery, I didn't know when I'd be back or how I'd feel," he said. "Everything went so smooth. I'm just really thankful, I guess."