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Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann recovering from Tommy John surgery

The Washington Nationals continue spring training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- For most of Wednesday morning, Jordan Zimmermann blended in with all the other Washington Nationals pitchers. He jogged in a pack from field to field, everyone wearing red hooded sweatshirts against the chill. He mimicked throwing pitches and fielding comebackers. He honed his bunting form. His cheeks puffed while he ran sprints.

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But at the start of the workout, while a group of pitchers gathered and listened to a lesson about controlling base runners, Zimmermann stripped down to his blue uniform and stood by himself in shallow center field on Field 3. Zimmermann played catch for roughly 15 minutes with one trainer while another watched, a typical act of spring that represented one more humble milestone.

As his teammates prepare for this upcoming season, firing bullpen sessions and batting practice, Zimmermann is using spring training for a more remote aspiration. He is recovering from last August's elbow ligament replacement surgery, which cut short his promising rookie season and momentarily endangered his nascent career.

Six months later, one of the franchise's foundational pitching prospects has allayed the worst initial fears. Zimmermann plays catch three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In one month, he plans to throw off a mound. "Before you know it," he said, "I'll be throwing in games again."

Zimmermann already has started pushing toward an immediate goal. Secure that he will make a complete recovery, Zimmermann plans to return to baseball not in 2011, but at the end of this season.

"Just to show the fans that I am ready to go and I feel good," Zimmermann said. "I really want to get back this year and pitch. I don't want to wait 18 months and not step on a mound and then come to spring training having not thrown at a big league level."

The typical recovery time for Tommy John surgery is 12 to 18 months. Zimmermann expects to be in ideal condition, back to being a central figure in the Nationals' future, by spring training 2011. By the one-year point, he hopes his rehab will allow him to pitch out of the bullpen by September, a significant step in a detour that began last year.

For now, Zimmermann celebrates small signposts. Like Wednesday. He hadn't tossed a baseball longer than 90 feet since the surgery, but now he had the chance to throw 120 feet. "I just want to go out there right now," Zimmermann said, sitting at his locker an hour before practice.

"He's one of those guys, we have to make sure he doesn't work too hard," General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

Zimmermann warmed up with his teammates and then jogged to Field 3. With an effortless motion, he zipped throws on a line to a trainer standing on the foul line. A stiff breeze blunted the trainer's throws, which Zimmermann snared on a hop.

At the end of the session, Zimmermann moved to within 60 feet and made 10 more easy throws. As he walked in, the trainer mentioned Zimmermann's good fortune to be throwing with the wind. "I'd have rather been on this side," Zimmermann replied. "Seen what I had."

Before a certain No. 1 pick arrived, Zimmermann may have been the Nationals' most alluring starter. Zimmermann, a second-round draft pick in 2007, cemented his spot in the rotation upon his late-April promotion. At one point, he allowed three earned runs or less in six consecutive starts. Zimmermann compiled a 4.63 ERA in 16 starts, striking out 92 and walking 29. Only one rookie pitcher -- Brett Anderson of the Oakland Athletics -- had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio, perhaps the most predictive statistical barometer of a pitcher's future success.

But by the middle of the season, Zimmermann could no longer pitch. Sharp pain shot through his elbow every time he threw. The day after starts, his elbow stiffened so much he couldn't straighten it. On July 23, the Nationals placed him on the 15-day disabled list with "elbow discomfort." Eighteen days later, on Aug. 10, the Nationals announced he would have Tommy John surgery.

The surgery scared Zimmermann. "I had never done anything with my arm before," he said. When he awoke from it, still groggy from the anesthesia, Zimmermann felt relief. And then he thought about what he could do to get healthy again.

Zimmermann wore a cast for two weeks that kept him from straightening his elbow. Living in Wisconsin, he worked on strength and flexibility and wondered what it would be like to throw.

His best moment came in late December. Zimmermann walked into an indoor facility in Wisconsin Rapids and stood 60 feet away from Dan Janik, his physical therapist. He lobbed a baseball 60 feet. He felt no pain. "Hey, it is fixed," he thought.

"You never know until that first throw," Zimmermann said. "The first ball I threw, it felt great."

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