Jordan Zimmermann glared into the batter’s box, stoic as always, knowing he owned the seventh inning. Torii Hunter stood at the plate, a runner on first base with two outs. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were looming. Tumbleweeds rolled through the Washington Nationals’ bullpen. Davey Johnson already had the man he wanted on the Nationals Park mound.
“He’s earned that right,” Johnson said. “I just had total confidence in him.”
Why not? The Nationals’ starting rotation includes three all-stars and a former sixth overall pick. The best of them, though, is the 26-year-old Wisconsin native with more pitches than facial expressions, a fact further established Wednesday night during the Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the fearsome Detroit Tigers. Zimmermann added seven more innings of dominance to his 2013 ledger, the one that marks him not only as the Nationals’ ace, but also one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
“I don’t think he’s scared of anybody,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I don’t think he cares who’s hitting.”
The Nationals vowed through early struggling that the time would come when they delivered on their potential. It may be happening. The Nationals captured their fifth win in six games and claimed a meeting of teams widely predicted to play in the World Series. Bryce Harper obliterated his 10th home run as the Nationals beat erstwhile division foe Anibal Sanchez for the first time in 20 tries. Rafael Soriano, the closer the Tigers passed on this winter, notched his ninth straight save.
“We’re not quite on all cylinders,” Johnson said. “But I like where we’re going.”
Zimmermann, strutting slowly off the mound after Hunter popped up in the seventh, rose above it all. He allowed one run and lowered his ERA to 1.59 while upping his record to 6-1. He did not let the might of the Tigers, who averaged 5.47 runs per game, affect his attacking style. He threw 72 strikes in 101 pitches and walked one. He struck out seven, at one point whiffing Fielder with a 94-mph fastball at the shoulders.
“Here it is,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said prior to the game. “This is my best. If you can hit it, you can hit it. One of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen.”
He fired fastballs that reached 96 and biting sliders, eschewing his curve and change-up for most of the night after he couldn’t find the feel for them in the bullpen pregame, perhaps an effect of his extra day of rest. He sensed the Tigers sitting on first-pitch fastballs, and so he still started six of the final nine hitters he faced with an offspeed pitch.
“I take pride every time I go there,” Zimmermann said. “I’m going to pitch to contact and attack guys. Whatever happens is going to happen.
“I don’t think anyone is an ace on this staff. We’re all equal.”
That may be in dispute. Upon reaching first base, several Tigers remarked to LaRoche how much life Zimmermann had on his fastball, or how much movement his slider had.
Zimmermann had to hold his breath in the eighth. Tyler Clippard promptly retired Cabrera and struck out Fielder. The hard part turned out to be the easy part. Clippard walked both Andy Dirks and Jhonny Peralta, suddenly making Alex Avila the potential winning run. “He was facing his last batter,” Johnson said. With his 34th pitch, Clippard fooled Avila with a 2-2, 93-mph fastball.
In the third inning, Zimmermann’s scoreless streak came to a sudden stop at 20. Zimmermann recorded two quick outs, but Hunter bounced a double down the left field line and Cabrera swatted an RBI single to left.
The Nationals struck back in the third against Sanchez, who entered 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA against Washington. Denard Span tripled, and with one out Harper flicked the first pitch he saw to left field.
If you created a list of the most likely ways for the Nationals to score a run, LaRoche’s brazen base running would rank at the bottom. And yet, his legs gave the Nationals the lead. LaRoche had ripped an opposite field single, giving him 13 times on base in his past 19 plate appearances, and stood on second with one out in the fourth.
Suzuki skied a fly ball to right field. LaRoche took the chance of making the third out at third base — with Zimmermann on deck, he figured a reaching third and getting lucky would be the Nats’ best chance for a run. Hunter’s throw one-hopped toward third. As LaRoche slid, he inadvertently deflected the ball off of a camera, allowing him to score.
Harper sealed it when he crushed a first-pitch, 81-mph curveball over the Geico sign in right-center field in the fifth.