Washington Nationals spring training: Jordan Zimmermann ready for first full season after Tommy John surgery

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:14 AM

IN VIERA, FLA. On June 7, 2007, at the house in which his mother raised him in Auburndale, Wis., Jordan Zimmermann received a call from a Washington Nationals official telling him he had been drafted in the second round. After a short conversation, he walked into his mother's living room and all but shrugged. "Well," Zimmermann said. "That's done."

Kris Zimmermann was not surprised by her son's blank reaction. She would often take him hunting, and when he was 16, Jordan shot and killed his first buck. She could tell he was excited. She told him to kneel behind the dead animal, the classic hunter's pose. "Come on, Jordan," she said. "Smile." Stone-faced, he continued with a chore - he already started gutting the deer.

"He just wouldn't smile," Kris Zimmermann said in a phone conversation, laughing at the memory. "That's him. He doesn't really show emotion."

Jordan Zimmermann, then, has offered few outward clues about what this spring training means to him. Last year at this time, he was healing from Tommy John surgery, not quite ready to throw off a pitcher's mound, still months away from a major league ballpark. Zimmermann, 24, enters this year as a key piece of the Nationals' rotation, his right arm able to perform whatever task he wants.

The Nationals will rely on Zimmermann, now that he has overcome the challenge currently facing Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann could fit into the rotation anywhere from second to fourth. By the time he pitches the full, undetermined allotment of innings the Nationals are limiting him to this year, he may very well be their best pitcher.

"I'm excited to get going here," Zimmermann said Friday in his polite monotone. His full health means, mostly, he can blend in with the rest of his teammates. On Friday, he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of 2010 first overall pick Bryce Harper, someone who would attract the media's attention - and take away any he might have otherwise received.

"I'm just quiet, low-key," Zimmermann said. "I don't like to cause a big scene, I guess. I don't really like the attention. I'm glad Strasburg came and took that away. And now Harper's coming in. I'm way down there where I want to be."

Zimmermann cracked a smile as he spoke, a rare event. "If you can get a smile out of him, that's good" his mother said. Zimmermann can become more effusive and show his witty, dry sense of humor around teammates and coaches. Pitching coach Steve McCatty likes to tease him about his home town and the "igloo" he grew up in.

"He can talk crap with everybody else," McCatty said.

In public and on the mound, Zimmermann conceals his feelings. McCatty can tell if he is frustrated during a game, he but he has to look close. "He hides his emotion pretty good," McCatty said.

During his junior season at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a line drive during practice broke Zimmermann's jaw. Doctors wired his mouth shut, and he could not speak or eat solid food. But weeks later, when his team traveled to Florida for a tournament, "We knew we weren't going to be able to hold him back," Stevens-Point Coach Pat Bloom said.

Doctors worried the wiring would come undone when Zimmermann exerted himself. His coaches knew better.

"One of Jordan's key characteristics is he has a poker face," Bloom said. "He's not the type of guy who is going to excited or smile or frown on the mound."

Zimmermann pitched, his team won and the wiring stayed in place.

Zimmermann's even keel was fostered in Auburndale, a town smack in the middle of Wisconsin with a population of roughly 750. His mother worked as a secretary, his father, Jeff, at a welding plant. Once every year, Auburndale High School puts on Bring Your Tractor to School Day.

"Everybody knew everyone," Kris Zimmermann said. "Everybody watched out for each other's kids, made sure they didn't do anything wrong."

While he rehabbed from surgery, Jordan Zimmermann's demeanor helped him. Looking back, he can recall two things most - the awfulness of wearing a cast up to his elbow for two weeks and the relief of throwing a ball again for the first time. Otherwise, he held in frustration with pitching in the minors and simply did the work.

"He's an absolute rock," said Class A Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart, one of Zimmermann's minor league coaches. "He's doesn't seem to have a pulse."

But he does. During his sophomore year in college, Stevens-Point made the Division III World Series. Zimmermann gave up two home runs to the same batter, and when the hitter came up again, Bloom instructed Zimmermann to not throw him any strikes. Zimmermann's first pitch was a fastball over the plate, and he struck him out with three pitches. After the third strike, Zimmermann glanced at Bloom.

"You're not going to see it in the color on his face," Bloom said. "But his fire burns deep."

Once Zimmermann returned to the majors last year, he went 1-2 with a 4.94 ERA. Nationals officials expected ups and downs, and they were pleased with how he pitched. Zimmermann was disappointed. He didn't care that he had not pitched in the major leagues in more than a year.

"I don't want to have the excuse that I'm just coming back from surgery, so it's all right that I had a bad game," Zimmermann said. "I don't think that way. I think if I'm out there, I should be able to put up the same numbers if I'm 100 percent healthy. I'm competitive in everything I do. I hate to lose in a game of bowling, or whatever. I don't like to lose, I guess."

When Zimmermann returned last year, rust still affected him. His best pitch before surgery was his slider. Last year in the majors, he threw it without the late, darting bite that makes it so effective. It is early, but already this spring Zimmermann can see the sharp bite coming back. He thinks his curveball and his change-up are even better than before his surgery.

Combined with his mid-90s fastball, Zimmermann has the kind of pitching arsenal that will attract attention. For now, he hopes it stays away. Friday morning, he joked with teammate John Lannan about ending "the interview phase" of spring. "I don't mind talking to the media," Zimmermann said. "I'd rather just be by myself sometimes."

Spring training is not one of them. Last year, after Nationals pitchers stretched, Zimmermann would jog to a field by himself and play light catch with a trainer. This year, he does the same thing as every one else. Back to normal health, Zimmermann can blend in again, the way he prefers it.

"It's good," he said, "just to be another ballplayer."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company