Just three days before, the Nationals were stuck in their worst rut of the season – “our rock bottom,” reliever Tyler Clippard said Wednesday. But there they were on Thursday, with their best pitcher on the mound, opening an 11-game, 11-day West Coast road swing with a convincing win over baseball’s hottest team – the Diamondbacks came into Thursday having won 16 of 19.
They won Thursday as Zimmermann added to a stretch that has him “establishing himself as someone who can pitch at the front of a rotation,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. Zimmermann has reeled off six consecutive quality starts – at least six innings and three earned runs or less – after he allowed the Diamondbacks one run in seven innings on six hits and a walk, lowering his ERA to 3.61.
“I always felt like I could pitch up here,” Zimmermann said. “I just wanted to go out and pitch the way I’ve been pitching the last month. I’ve been stringing some good starts together here.”
Unlike in previous Zimmermann starts, the Nationals struck early and never relented, scoring three runs in the first off left-hander Zach Duke. The Nationals’ offense pounded 13 hits, the most crucial a two-out, two-run double by catcher Wilson Ramos in the first. Suddenly, the Nationals have double-digit hits in four of their last five games.
Michael Morse went 4 for 5 with four singles, two runs and two RBI, raising his average since May 1 to .429, the best mark in the major leagues over that span. He also has an 11-game hitting streak. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the majors is hitting balls harder and with more consistency than Morse.
“He’s been able to relax a little more and let the ball come to him,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said before the game. “He’s not trying to go out and get the ball.”
Said Morse: “I’m just going up there. I try to keep it as simple as possible.”
Before Thursday, Zimmermann had allowed two or fewer earned runs in seven of his 10 starts, but he had only two wins owing to lousy run support – the Nationals had scored 3.13 runs per nine innings with Zimmermann on the mound. After his last start, when he allowed two earned runs in six innings and lost, Jayson Werth made scoring more with Zimmermann pitching an imperative.
And then Thursday, they scored three in the first inning. The Nationals have said one of the contributing factors to their woeful offensive start was bad luck, and they finally received a break. With one out in the first, Ian Desmond popped to shallow right. He hustled out of the batter’s box, and so when Kelly Johnson dropped the ball, Desmond cruised into second with a double.
After Werth tapped back to Duke, Morse smoked his first hit of the night, a single to center, scoring Desmond. Danny Espinosa followed with another sharp single. Ramos blasted a double high off the center field wall, about 410 feet from home plate, that scored both runners.
“I feel better at the plate,” Ramos said. “A couple days ago, I was thinking too much.”
Given a rare three-run lead, Zimmermann dominated. “It’s a lot easier to pitch with the lead early,” Zimmermann said. “You can attack guys a little more and go after hitters.”
He walked Johnson, the second batter he faced, and did not face another three-ball count until the very last batter he faced. Zimmermann peppered the strike zone, throwing 66 of 97 pitches for strikes. He mixed in more off-speed pitches, particularly change-ups, than usual.
The pitch selection continued a trend that helped spark his recent success. Along with catcher Ivan Rodriguez, pitching coach Steve McCatty emphasized to Zimmermann throwing more sliders and change-ups on the first pitch of an at-bat or when he falls behind in the count.
“That’s what makes you a pitcher,” McCatty said. “ ‘Here’s a fastball, let’s play hardball’ – that doesn’t work. He’s mixing things up. He’s learning how to pitch at this level.”
Zimmermann tries to induce weak contact in order to remain in games longer, a strategy that worked Thursday night as he recorded nine groundouts and he used just 13.9 pitches per inning. It has also meant Zimmermann has excelled this season while hardly using one of his most common previous weapons – the strikeout.
Before this season, Zimmermann struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings. Thursday night, he navigated through Arizona’s lineup while striking out only four hitters, receiving ample from the Nationals’ defense. This year, even with an 11-strikeout game against the Atlanta Braves, Zimmermann has struck out 6.4 batters per nine innings.
“I’d rather have quick outs and go deeper in the ballgame,” Zimmermann said. “I’d rather have no strikeouts and go eight than have 10 strikeouts and only go six.”
Said McCatty: “He’s going to get strikeouts. To me, it doesn’t matter. He has the stuff, he’s going to get strikeouts when he needs to. He’s going to learn how to set guys up to do that. We want quick outs.”
Once Zimmermann handed it over the Nationals’ bullpen, their offense added on two runs in the ninth, a triple by Roger Bernadina and Morse’s final hit, a bloop to center, giving the Nationals welcome insurance. The Nationals could relax. Less than 100 hours before, they had hit their low point. All of a sudden, that seemed far, far away.