Jordan Zimmermann walked from the bullpen to the dugout five minutes before Friday’s first pitch, the same route he had taken 93 other times at Nationals Park in his seven-year Washington career. Fans applauded the entire time, many standing. In the dugout, Ian Desmond, Clint Robinson, Gio Gonzalez and others did the same. Like always, Zimmermann remained stoic.
But Friday’s start — an 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies that left the Nationals on the brink of elimination from the postseason — was a chance to appreciate Zimmermann in what was likely his final home start in a Nationals uniform. With Zimmermann a free agent at season’s end, this amounted to a curtain call for the 29-year-old homegrown right-hander in the only home stadium he has known.
“It was awesome,” Zimmermann said of the pregame ovation. “It means a lot to me. I just wish I could’ve given them something a little better tonight.”
Despite Friday’s uneven five innings, Zimmermann holds a special place in Nationals history. He is the author of two of the franchise’s most memorable starts, both coming late last season: the team’s first no-hitter on the final day of the regular season and his 8
“I feel good,” Zimmermann said of his time in Washington. “I feel like I took the ball every time they asked and did what I could. Some days I didn’t have it. Some days I was good. I’m not saying this is my last start. You don’t know what’s going to happen this offseason. We’ll see what happens.”
The Nationals fell in love with Zimmermann when he was at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, enamored by his trademark toughness, when he pitched in the snow in short sleeves or with a broken jaw wired shut. He was selected with the 67th pick of the 2007 draft, a compensation selection for Alfonso Soriano, and moved quickly to the majors, overcoming Tommy John surgery in 2009.
Zimmermann blossomed into one of the most consistent starters in baseball. He has logged 195 innings in four straight seasons, rarely missing a start. His 3.14 ERA from 2011 to 2015 is eighth best in the majors among starters with at least 800 innings. He is the only starter to be selected to two all-star games as a National.
“He’s a great guy, ice water in his veins and a great sense of humor,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Jordan is a tremendous competitor. Hopefully, being able to work with him continues for a long time. Who knows what is going to happen?”
The Nationals, who were previously unable to strike a long-term extension with Zimmermann, are poised to replace him in the rotation with younger arms next season, a fact that saddens many. About an hour before first pitch, 30 fans in a group calling itself the Half Street Irregulars gathered in the Red Porch at Nationals Park — and not simply because it was Zimmermann no-hitter bobblehead day. Some held a staring contest, in honor of Zimmermann’s fierce in-game demeanor. Some snared candy fish out of cups of jelly beans with forks, in honor of Zimmermann’s love of ice fishing.
“He was an easy guy to fall in love with,” said Frank Lattuca, one of the group’s organizers. “Definitely some people here are going to cry if he doesn’t return.”
Zimmermann (13-9) began Friday’s start well, but mistakes undermined him in the third inning. He walked Brian Bogusevic to start the frame, gave up a single to Cameron Rupp and then threw to third base on a sacrifice bunt by pitcher Jerad Eickhoff but was too late. With no outs and the bases loaded, Michael A. Taylor dove for Aaron Altherr’s shallow flyball to center and missed, resulting in an inside-the-park grand slam, the first in the majors since 1999.
“I thought I had a chance on it,” Taylor said. “I know in that situation you better catch the ball, and I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t think I could. It’s still a bad play once I miss it.”
Two innings later, Zimmermann gave up a genuine home run to Altherr and then another to Darin Ruf on pitches up in the zone, pushing the Nationals’ deficit to 6-1. After Zimmermann notched the fifth inning’s final out on his 79th pitch of the night, he walked off the mound and into the dugout without fanfare. Manager Matt Williams sent pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo to bat in the bottom of the inning, depriving fans of a chance to give him an ovation coming off the field.
“We’ve got to try to get back in the game,” Williams said in the wake of his team’s fourth straight loss.
Zimmermann, who is slated to make one more start for the Nationals next week in Atlanta, was never one for grand sentiments or big displays anyway.
“I would’ve pulled me there, too,” he said. “I was giving up quite a few hits. I wasn’t really thinking about going out the next inning and walking off the mound or anything. It would’ve been nice, but at the end of the day, you have to pitch well if you want to get those things at the end of the game.”