Zimmermann did more than follow McCatty’s directive. In six scoreless innings against the Mets, Zimmermann allowed two hits and faced one hitter over the minimum. He walked none and used a scant 68 pitches.
Zimmermann’s fastball zipped at 92-94 miles per hour low in the zone, produced nine groundouts to just four fly balls. He bounced two-strike curveballs when he wanted to, and he carved the strike zone with his slider. It was Zimmermann in full.
“That was superb, to say the least,” Johnson said. “That’s him. That’s who we’ve grown to know and love.”
Zimmermann became the first Nationals start to throw six innings, and he would have gone back out for the seventh had he not developed a pesky blister on his foot in the sixth inning. He spent barely any time on the mound, plowing through the Mets’ lineup, striking out two batters.
“I feel pretty pleased right now,” Zimmermann said. “I feel like I’m peaking at the right time. The slider was really good today. I’m happy with where I’m at.”
All of Zimmermann’s pitches worked how he wanted them to. He kept his fastball down, and “that’s when I get all the groundballs.” Earlier in spring, Zimmermann had a bad habit of getting too much of the plate with pitches when ahead in the count. Today, he used breaking balls to make hitters chase.
“When I did get two strikes, I buried the curveball instead of trying to get too fancy with it and leaving it over the middle,” Zimmermann said. “I made sure it was in the dirt.”
The only time Zimmermann even approached trouble came in the sixth. He allowed a one-out double to Rob Johnson, the first hit he had yielded since the second, when he used a double play to erase a single. Zimmermann knew his start would probably end after the inning.
All winter, Zimmermann had thought about the squandered chances he had last season to finish starts. Twice, he allowed home runs with his final pitch to lose a lead. This was only spring training, but here, with the Nationals holding a 2-0 lead, Zimmermann had a chance to leave a start on his terms.
He induced a groundout by Adam Loewen, putting Johnson on third with two outs. Up came Scott Hairston.
“I wasn’t going to give in and throw him a fastball and see what he could with it,” Zimmermann said. “I threw him a slider, a pretty good one.”
Hairston popped up a few feet in front of home plate. Zimmermann settled under the ball and put his glove in the air, but first baseman Xavier Nady barreled in front of him and called him off at the last minute.
“Thank God I didn’t have to catch the ball,” Zimmermann said.
Everything else, Zimmermann did just fine.