In three of their past five games, the Nationals’ starting pitchers — Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann — had double-digit strikeouts without any walks.
SAN DIEGO — On Sunday afternoon, preparing for his start out in the visiting bullpen at Petco Park, Jordan Zimmermann felt terrible. His curveballs were flat. His fastball strayed from the target. Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty thought he lacked focus. Zimmermann realized first pitch was five minutes later than he thought. “It was really bad,” catcher Jose Lobaton said.
As Zimmermann walked through the gate, bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo sidled next to McCatty. Robledo plays catch with Washington Nationals starters daily, and he sometimes can sense what others cannot.
“He’s on today,” Robledo said to McCatty.
“How do you know?” McCatty asked.
“He’s on,” Robledo replied.
Once Zimmermann climbed the mound, his bullpen troubles ceded to nine masterful innings in a 6-0 victory over the punchless San Diego Padres. In one of the best starts in the Nationals’ brief history, Zimmermann struck out 12, walked none and retired the first 16 batters he faced. Eighty-three of his 114 pitches were strikes, and only once did he move to a three-ball count. He baffled hitters, induced helplessly ugly swings and convinced himself he should feel terrible before every start.
“I guess that’s the way it works,” Zimmermann said. “When that’s bad, it’s usually a good game.”
Good? Even if it came against an offense that just hit .135 over a six-game homestand, it ranked among the best starts ever by a National. Only John Patterson, back in 2005, had struck out at least 12 and walked none in a complete game.
On that day, Patterson yielded four hits. The only base runners Zimmermann allowed came when Alexi Amarista flared a single to right in the sixth and Seth Smith hit a triple to right, a ball Jayson Werth could have caught and certainly should have kept in front of him.
“That was pretty good right there,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who smacked three hits and drove in two runs. “He didn’t really make any mistakes today. He was really painting. That was probably the best I’ve seen him throw.”
The third shutout of Zimmermann’s career catapulted the Nationals into a first-place tie in the National League East with the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves as they readied for a showdown with the powerhouse Giants in San Francisco. They have surged to the top of the National League East behind a preposterous run of starting pitching. Over their past six games, Nationals starters have struck out 44 batters and walked one.
“Who had that walk?” Zimmermann asked.
Zimmermann was informed he did.
“I know,” he said, smiling.
Not long ago, Zimmermann dealt with a harsher version of standing out for the wrong reason. In May, Zimmermann posted a 5.06 ERA and opponents hit .342 against him. In his first two starts of June, the sharpness of his slider returned, and he has allowed seven hits and one walk over 17 scoreless innings.
“The whole month of May, I was that guy,” Zimmermann said. “Everyone was having good starts, and I was pitching terrible. I just wanted to pitch like everyone else. We got a good thing going right now.”
On Sunday, the Nationals’ scored a run in the first inning after Denard Span hustled for a double, stole third and scored on a grounder. In the second, Ian Desmond blasted a two-run homer to center field off Eric Stults. The instant lead changed Zimmermann’s mentality. “Pour strikes in the zone,” he told himself. “It’s a big ballpark. Just let them hit the ball.”
From Sunday afternoon’s first batter, Zimmermann located pitches with molecular precision. He typically peppers the strike zone. On Sunday, Zimmerman also nailed spots outside of it when he wanted a hitter to flail at a ball.
Once he got two strikes on leadoff hitter Everth Cabrera, he rifled a 93-mph fastball above the strike zone, where Cabrera has chased pitches all season. He swung again and whiffed for strike three. Zimmermann struck out the second hitter, freezing Smith with a 95-mph fastball on the outside sliver of the plate.
Zimmermann navigated the Padres’ lineup mostly with his fastball, but when he wanted it, he had total control of his off-speed array — he froze cleanup hitter Chase Headley with a curveball to lead off the second. When Zimmermann hurled a 93-mph fastball past Yasmani Grandal to end the fifth inning, he carried a perfect game into the sixth. He had thrown 45 strikes in 60 pitches.
“I thought he had a chance at the no-hitter,” Desmond said.
Zimmermann claimed the prospect never entered his head, deterred by the odds. Last year, in an effort to teach staff ace Stephen Strasburg a lesson in proper expectation, McCatty sat Zimmermann and Strasburg down. He asked Strasburg his goal for every outing.
“To throw a no-hitter,” Strasburg replied.
McCatty turned to Zimmermann.
“Do you try to throw a no-hitter?” McCatty asked.
“The way I look at it, I give up a hit an inning on average,” Zimmermann replied. “If they don’t get a hit in the first inning, it’s probably going to come in the second inning.”
And so Zimmermann began the sixth unworried about the 0 in San Diego’s hit column. Cameron Maybin popped to right. Amarista, a No. 8 hitter batting .196 to start the day, walked to the plate with one out. The count ran to 2-2, and Zimmermann zipped a 94-mph fastball over the inside corner, a pitch just as precise as the first 66 he had thrown. But Amarista whipped his bat quickly enough to line it softly over LaRoche’s head and into right field.
“I mean, I wasn’t thinking about the no-hitter,” Zimmermann said. “It was whatever.”
Having allowed his first base runner 11 outs shy of a perfect game, Zimmermann regrouped. He struck out pinch-hitter Tommy Medica with a high-and-inside fastball, and he dispatched Cabrera swinging at one of the few change-ups he used all game.
Zimmermann cruised to the finish, stranding Smith even after he led off the seventh with a triple under Werth’s glove. Zimmermann stepped off the mound and embraced Lobaton, then waited to line up and shake hands with teammates. His team was in first place. He had dominated in as thorough a manner as a pitcher can. And Zimmermann felt like he had nothing in the bullpen.
“You get on the mound and you start throwing a few pitches,” Zimmermann said. “And you feel pretty good.”