MILWAUKEE — Saturday night would have been the right time to rob a store in Auburndale, Wis., save for one obstacle. “There’s not many stores to rob,” said Jordan Zimmermann, the town’s most famous inhabitant.
Many among its population of 701 vacated Auburndale for Miller Park. The tailgate party began three hours before first pitch, 200 strong in the parking lot. They drank beer and ate brats and waited to watch a local boy pitch a major league game in his home state for the first time. They could feel certain he would make it worth the trip.
Zimmermann shut down the Milwaukee Brewers in the Washington Nationals’ 4-1 victory, his latest sparkling outing. He allowed one run over six innings against the team he grew up rooting for while the Nationals supported him with three homers. Corey Brown replaced late scratch Bryce Harper and drilled a solo home run for his first career hit. Fellow rookie Tyler Moore and Ryan Zimmerman added homers that put the game out of reach.
When Zimmermann starts, four runs are more than enough. Manager Davey Johnson revealed afterward that Zimmermann has been pitching through minor arm trouble, which the right-hander cast aside as standard for any pitcher. Saturday night, the results could not be argued with. “Zim,” Johnson said, “was Zim.”
By a quirk of the schedule, Zimmermann had never pitched professionally in his home state, in the stadium where he watched games in high school, about a three-hour drive from his tiny home town. He once threw an American Legion all-star game at Miller Park, but not in the majors.
He secured 45 tickets but about 200 of his friends, family members and former teammates from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point came. Many wore navy shirts reading “Auburndale Pride.” Zimmermann could see red Nationals gear dotting the crowd behind home plate.
“It was definitely awesome,” Zimmermann said. “A dream come true to pitch in front of my family and friends who came out to watch. I’m just glad I gave them a good showing.”
They saw a 26-year-old who has become one of the best pitchers in baseball, a strike-throwing machine with robotic poise. He has thrown at least six innings in his past 21 starts, a streak surpassed only by Justin Verlander. Zimmermann has allowed one or zero earned runs in seven straight outings. Saturday, he lowered his ERA to 2.28.
He struck out six, walked one and gave up five hits, two of them weak singles. He struck out reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun twice, both times swinging at a four-seam fastball. He threw 69 strikes in his 93 pitches.
Johnson pulled Zimmermann with 95 pitches or less for the third straight start. Zimmermann has had trouble getting his shoulder loose when playing catch. The issue has not made the Nationals consider giving him time off, but it has given them pause.
“We’re a little concerned about that,” Johnson said. “We’re holding all his pitches down. He’s fine. But it concerns me anytime someone has a little trouble getting loose. Anytime any little thing goes on like that, it concerns me.”
Said Zimmermann: “Just playing catch, it takes me a little bit longer. But once I get loose, it feels great. It’s one of those things that all pitchers go through, aches and pains. But I’ll be fine. I’m not concerned at all.”
The Nationals (60-40), wearing Homestead Grays uniforms as part of a Negro leagues tribute at Miller Park, maintained a four-game lead in the National League East over the Atlanta Braves. A new star emerges each night, and Saturday it was a rookie with 21 homers at Class AAA Syracuse this season and no major league career hits.
During batting practice, third base coach Bo Porter told Brown that Harper had been feeling sick — the bug that had caused Harper to vomit since Thursday wouldn’t go away. About 45 minutes before first pitch, Porter told he was in the lineup against soft-tossing lefty Randy Wolf. Brown, whom the Nationals acquired in December 2010 as part of the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland, would make the second start of his major league career.
“It wasn’t anything I had to change to get ready,” Brown said. “In my shoes, you got to ready at any second to get in there and help the team.”
After a trying 2011, in which he battled injury and the pressure of trying to impress a new team, Brown performed like a new player this season. At one point, he blasted a homer in six straight games. He earned his way back to the majors for a stint in May, and again this week when Ian Desmond landed on the disabled list.
Brown had collected an RBI on a suicide squeeze bunt, but when he dug into the box to lead off the fourth inning Saturday, he still sought his first career hit, stuck on 0 for 11, trying not feel antsy at the plate. “The toughest part is to relax and accept your surroundings,” Brown said.
Against Wolf, Brown reached a 1-1 count. Wolf spun a 69-mph slider. Brown hung back, waiting long enough to drill the ball deep to the opposite field. Braun drifted back in left field and watched the ball fly over the electronic scoreboard display on the fence, which showed Brown’s mug shot next to his batting average: .000. Brown broke into a smile as he rounded second base.
“All I wanted to get that first one of the way,” Brown said. “Get the weight off my shoulders. I’m sure everyone at home is excited. I’m sure my mom is crying still.”
The Nationals piled on, even as Michael Morse was thrown out at home plate to stifle a rally. Moore clobbered a two-run homer to left field, his sixth this year. Zimmerman mashed his 15th homer to center field, which the Nationals’ pitching made to seem purely cosmetic.
From the dugout, Zimmermann watched Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard dominate the final innings. Zimmermann jerseys and red T-shirts dotted the sellout crowd. In the Nationals’ clubhouse, Zimmermann noted many of them been there since 3 p.m. “I’m sure they’re all feeling pretty good right now,” he said.