Jordan Zimmermann peered into home plate, saw Kurt Suzuki’s sign and shook his head. Zimmermann had not needed to throw any one pitch of particular importance all night, but now, in the eighth inning of what would become the Washington Nationals’ 5-1 victory Thursday night, tension had invaded.
Carlos Gonzalez, the National League leader in home runs, stood in the left-handed batter’s box. Two Colorado Rockies occupied bases. Zimmermann kept shaking his head until Suzuki called for a change-up, the pitch Zimmermann incorporated into his repertoire only this spring.
“He has confidence,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He’s going to throw what he wants to throw.”
Two batters later, Zimmermann had cleaved through the tension, the same as he had carved the Rockies all night. Zimmermann strolled along the path he had beaten between the mound and the first base dugout, same as all the other walks. His eyes focused on a spot two yards in front of his feet, his face blank, unmoved by the eruption around him. The fans at Nationals Park roared and his teammates rushed to greet him, all of them hoping — again — something about this Nationals season had finally shifted.
As so much about his team has teetered, Zimmermann has remained a beacon. Thursday night, he sent the Nationals (36-36) back to .500. The Nationals’ offense showed a pulse, whacking 11 hits and stealing two bases. Ian Desmond blasted his 11th home run, and Adam LaRoche went 3 for 4 with a two-run triple.
Sometimes when he walked off the mound, Zimmermann raised his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, which is how you know for certain he is not an automaton, just a likely all-star. He allowed six hits and no earned runs in eight innings, pitching past the seventh for the eighth time in 15 starts.
“A blueprint,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “What a game he pitched. We really needed it.”
The Nationals have waited all year to hit the hot streak that snaps their season-long underachievement. Behind Stephen Strasburg on Friday night, the Nationals have a chance to win three straight games, remarkably, for the first time since May 10. And, starting with their victory Thursday, the Nationals play 14 of 17 games at Nationals Park.
“It’s nice to be home,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We love playing here. To be able to be here for pretty much this whole month, it’s nice. I think we can use that to our advantage and hopefully go on a little run.”
In his last start, Zimmermann lasted only five innings and squandered a five-run lead. His bad starts have been blips. Since the start of last season, Zimmermann has allowed more than three earned runs in seven starts. In the outings following those clunkers, including last night, he has yielded one, two, zero, three, two, zero and zero earned runs.
“Tonight was one of those night’s where I wasn’t about to let this one slip away,” Zimmermann said.
Of 112 pitches, Zimmermann fired 85 strikes. Only two Nationals had ever thrown so many strikes, and none since 2005, the team’s inaugural season. Estaban Loaiza needed 128 pitches, and Livan Hernandez needed 145.
The last of Zimmermann’s strikes sizzled at 95 mph, under Michael Cuddyer’s hands, which gave him his ninth strikeout. The pitch that mattered most, though, had come to the previous batter.
The Rockies did not mount a serious threat until the eighth inning, and for that they needed help from the Nationals’ defense. Pinch hitter Josh Rutledge drew the Rockies’ first walk of the night with one out. Tyler Colvin grounded Zimmermann’s next pitch to Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ neophyte second baseman. Rather than taking an easy out at first, Rendon pivoted and fired to second. The throw scooted under Desmond’s glove.
“The second baseman gave me a heart attack,” Johnson said. “I mentioned it to him: ‘We got a lead, we get the out.’ ”
When DJ LeMahieu rolled a single to right and scored a run, Zimmermann had real trouble. The Rockies trailed 5-1, but Gonzalez stood at the plate.
Two infielders filibustered at the mound, giving time for two relievers warm in the bullpen. Zimmermann knew he needed to retire Gonzalez to stay in the game. McCatty came to the mound next to stall further. “Just relax,” McCatty told him. “Make a pitch, and we’ll get out of here.”
Plate umpire Joe West walked out and told them to hurry it up.
They left Zimmermann alone on the mound and he worked a 2-2 count. Gonzalez had taken a wicked hack against a fastball up. Last year in that spot, Zimmermann would have tried another fastball higher, or maybe a slider inside. Now, he commanded Suzuki to let him throw a change.
“I figured if I get a change-up anywhere close, he was going to swing at it. It was down in the bottom corner,” Zimmermann said. “It was a pretty good pitch. I’m probably going slider in or another fastball. Being able to whip that out late in the game is going to be big.”
“Confidence,” Suzuki said.
Zimmermann twirled the change, and it worked to perfection. Gonzalez screwed himself into the ground. He was looking down the first base line as the ball settled into Suzuki’s glove.
“He trusts it,” McCatty said. “He’s growing as a pitcher. When he needed to, he made a real quality pitch with it.”
Zimmermann had spent Thursday night stockpiling borderline-silly feats of efficient dominance. All 15 of his first-inning pitches went for strikes. In the fourth inning, he struck out Gonzalez with two 97 mph fastballs.
Zimmermann’s first two-ball count came against the 14th batter he faced, Nolan Arenado, whom he struck out with a curveball in the dirt. After four innings, he had thrown 41 strikes and eight balls. After Todd Helton singled to lead off the second inning, Zimmermann retired the next 16 batters.
“He’s right up there (with any pitcher we’ve seen this year),” Rockies Manager Walt Weiss said. “He’s impressive. Like I said, it’s a big power arm and he commands it.”