Jordan Zimmermann’s recovery from ligament-replacement surgery may not be fully complete, but after his outing in a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, there’s little doubt about his potential to be the front-line starter the Washington Nationals had envisioned before his right elbow betrayed him.
For five innings, Zimmermann allowed no Phillies to reach base, mixing four-seam fastballs, sliders and the occasional change-up before hanging a curve in the sixth that resulted in a home run. That was his only earned run in seven innings, during which he yielded five hits, struck out four and walked none.
On most nights, that kind of command would have been plenty to win. Except the Nationals ran into no ordinary pitcher in Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee, who turned in his best performance of the season, totaling 12 strikeouts and no walks while yielding just three hits.
Lee needed just 99 pitches for the sixth shutout of his career, and among his most frequent strikeout victims was leadoff hitter Ian Desmond. The Nationals shortstop fanned in three consecutive at-bats against Lee, including the first two looking. Lee twice struck out Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, who was back in left field after an illness kept him from two games, and in his most imposing stretch struck out five in a row over the sixth and seventh innings.
“He was good early, but he just got better and better,” Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said of the 2008 AL Cy Young winner with Cleveland. “The called strikeouts are an indication that he’s just hitting some spots that you just don’t feel like you can do much with the pitch, but it’s a strike, and it just kind of ties you up. That’s what he does, you know. That’s why he’s one of the best.”
A year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann is seeking to reach that level, or at least somewhere near it. The encouraging signs are certainly there and have validated Zimmermann’s toil since undergoing the procedure in August 2009 after feeling stiffness in his elbow between innings.
Zimmermann initially was unfazed by the discomfort, but when an examination revealed the severe nature of the injury, the lengthy process to get back to the majors began. Zimmermann took a significant step with seven starts last season in which he pitched just 31 innings overall, and his first two outings this season were even more rewarding.
“I was attacking more tonight and coming after them with the fastball,” Zimmermann said. “I felt good, so I could put it on each side of the plate and got in on some guys, and pretty much everything was working.”
The Phillies (9-3) finally cracked Zimmermann in the sixth, when catcher Carlos Ruiz led off by depositing an 0-1 curve just over the left field wall for his second homer of the season. Zimmermann got second baseman Wilson Valdez to ground out to second and Lee to ground to shortstop, but center fielder Shane Victorino sent a 2-1 fastball to left and wound up on second.
Placido Polanco then hit a sharp grounder to third, and Jerry Hairston backhanded it while driving hard toward the foul line. The throw, however, was nowhere near first baseman Adam LaRoche, allowing Victorino to score on what was ruled a hit and an error.
Zimmermann set down the side in order in the seventh but courted troubled in his next and final inning. Ruiz led off with a single, and Valdez followed with another base hit before Lee reached on second baseman Danny Espinosa’s error. Lee had hit a grounder to Espinosa, who was unable to field it cleanly, and the throw was late to first.
That was the end for Zimmermann, with Drew Storen taking over with the bases loaded. Storen got the first out by fanning Victorino, but Polanco’s grounder up the middle compelled a diving Espinosa to toss to second for the force-out as Ruiz scored to make it 3-0.
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins followed with a single to right to bring home Valdez with the final run. Storen departed after Rollins’s only hit of the game, and Doug Slaten ended the inning by striking out slugging first baseman Ryan Howard looking on three pitches.
Meantime, Lee continued to confound the Nationals (5-7), who briefly had an opening in the third after Espinosa laced an 0-1 fastball off the scoreboard in right center for a double. Espinosa advanced to third base on Hairston’s flyout to center, sliding in ahead of Victorino’s throw.
In a bid to get Espinosa across, Zimmermann smacked Lee’s first offering along the grass toward short, but Rollins was right there to field the ball and deliver the throw home. Ruiz tagged Espinosa out, and Lee struck out Desmond on three fastballs to end the inning.
“He’s tough,” said center fielder Rick Ankiel, who was 0 for 4 with a strikeout. “He throws strikes. He can change speeds, can move it in, move it out, and I think his name speaks for himself.”