Jordan Zimmermann had his jaw broken by a line drive when he was in college. Most people who follow the Washington Nationals know the story. MLB.com's Bill Ladson retold the anecdote about Zimmermann suffering a broken jaw in a June '07 article about the Nats' 2007 Draft Class, writing that in addition to the right-hander's, "above-average fastball, changeup and curveball," what, "... impressed the Nationals was that he once pitched with a broken jaw, which was wired together." Washington Post writer Barry Svrluga wrote a feature story about Zimmermann from Spring Training in 2009 which told the story of how he'd suffered the injury again and added details about the pitcher's desire to get back on the mound as soon as possible so that he could help his team, the University of Wisconin-Stevens Point Pointers.
When one of then-Assistant GM Mike Rizzo's scouts encouraged the future Nationals' general manager to see the right-hander for himself before the 2007 Draft, Rizzo did and he was sold on the pitcher immediately, telling the WaPost's Mr. Svrluga that when he runs a draft he always has a list, "'... and the 'must-gets' go on that list,' Rizzo said. 'He was the first guy of the 'must-gets.'" Former Nats' GM Jim Bowden told a story in the Spring of 2011 of a rift that existed amongst Nationals' scouts in June of '07, with Rizzo on one side championing the selection of Zimmermann eventually winning out and convincing Bowden to select the pitcher 67th overall that summer.
Zimmermann was a bulldog. He was tough. According to Jim Bowden, Rizzo said he was also destined to become at least a no.3 starter in the majors. The big question, however, was whether or not anyone could tell the difference when the normally reserved and generally quiet right-hander had his jaw wired shut? Zimmermann's fit in extremely well in the Nats' rotation this year, as the Nationals' no.3 behind the once-in-a-generation-type talent and hype that surrounds Stephen Strasburg and the media-friendly, always-on Gio Gonzalez. The Nats' '07 2nd Round pick told Reuters reporter Steve Ginsburg last week that he prefers being able to avoid the spotlight:
"'I'd rather have the media go to those two while I sit back in the weeds,' [Zimmermann] said. 'I'm from Wisconsin. It's the way I was brought up. Go about your business, shut up and do your job.'"
In the season-plus that Davey Johnson's been on the Nationals' bench, he's consistently praised the work and the demeanor of the now-26-year-old right-hander, who had Tommy John surgery late in the '09 season, worked his way back late in 2010 and went through the same rehab process in 2011 that's dominated the coverage of the Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg over the last year. Zimmermann finished his abbreviated 2011 campaign with a 3.18 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, 31 BB (1.73 BB/9) and 124 Ks (6.92 K/9). When he was shut down after 26 starts and 161.1 IP, the Nats' skipper said he thought the right-hander was the Nats' best starter.
"Jordan Zimmermann was arguably my best pitcher last year," Davey Johnson has said. It's a statement the Nats' 69-year-old skipper has made often this summer when talking about how Zimmermann's recovery from Tommy John surgery has served as a template for Stephen Strasburg's. "He was coming back from being out with Tommy John," the Nats' skipper told reporters last week, "This year he's taken it up a notch and his personality is coming out a little more. He's usually very quiet, but Zim is a man and he don't miss nothing. He has a presence that's a very strong quiet presence, but he's a fighter. He has been a little more outwardly this year... and he's fun."
Zimmermann's also earned the respect of his peers according to Johnson. "[Third base coach] Bo Porter will tell you," the manager said, "He talks to the opposing players and they have the utmost respect for Jordan Zimmermann. Believe it." The Nats' right-hander has earned more recognition as this season has gone on as well, with his name mentioned a few weeks back as a potential Cy Young award candidate, but more often, Zimmermann's name is coming up in the conversation about Strasburg's shut down. It's a conversation Davey Johnson told reporters last week he was tired of having. "I wish we could get by the Stras thing," the Nats' manager said. Asked if he thought he thought "we" would, Johnson said simply, "No. Unfortunately."
"It's funny," Johnson said, "There wasn't anything said when we shut down Zimmermann."
Of course, as every notes at this point in the discussion, the Nationals weren't in the position then that they are now. On August 28th, when Zimmermann's 2011 season ended at 161.1 IP, the Nationals were 62-70, 22.5 games out of first place in the National League East. When Washington takes the field tomorrow on August 28, 2012 in Marlins Park in Miami, they'll do so with a 77-50 record and a 4.5 game lead in the NL East in spite of the current four-game losing streak. Suddenly every game seems to be of increased significance and the Nationals' plan for Strasburg has come under more and more scrutiny. When Strasburg is shut down, the pressure on the starters remaining in the Nationals' rotation will only grow, though Davey Johnson's preaching that every single game carries the same weight regardless of circumstance.
"Every game, I have the same amount on the table for every game," Johnson told reporters last week when the Nationals and Braves were going head-to-head in the nation's capital. "There's not a big game... a little game. Every game has its own weight and you play that game as hard as you can with everything you can to win that game. But you don't get emotionally way up there or when you're playing the last place club, it's still a big game. They all count." Are the pitchers who will be asked to carry the Nationals down the stretch feeling the pressure? Gio Gonzalez, who pitched with the A's for four years before this season has never pitched in the postseason. Jordan Zimmermann's never been in a playoff race. Edwin Jackson was brought on in part because he has some of that experience.
Davey Johnson said he thought Zimmermann might have been feeling some additional pressure last time out. The Nationals beat the Braves last Monday night, but the right-hander surrendered eight hits, two walks and four runs in 5.0 IP over which he threw 102 pitches. It was the third time in four starts the the pitcher had lasted less than 6.0 innings after Zimmermann had gone at least 6.0 in every start of the year before the recent stretch. The normally stoic pitcher may have been feeling the pressure according to his manager. "Even [Zimmermann], maybe the extra day or whatever, but he was rushing and throwing," Johnson said, "He had that weight, 'This is a big game. This is a big game.' Instead of, 'This is just another game.'"
Is the pressure of the stretch run getting to the Nats' starter? Is it fatigue? With Zimmermann's start yesterday in Philadelphia, another abbreviated outing in which he was extremely sharp early but got knocked around and out after a long fifth inning, he reached 161.0 innings on the year, a third of an inning short of the career high he set last season in his own first full year back from Tommy John.
After a month of July in which Zimmermann earned recognition as MLB's Pitcher of the Month for going (4-0) in six starts with a 0.97 ERA, 2.08 FIP, four walks (0.97 BB/9) and 31 Ks (7.54 K/9) in 37.0 IP over which he allowed 27 hits, five runs (4 ER) and one home run, Zimmermann's (1-2) in five August outings, with a 4.39 ERA, 3.47 FIP, eight walks (2.70 BB/9) and 23 Ks (7.76 K/9) in 26.2 IP in which he's allowed 31 hits and 14 runs, 13 earned. The last five outings also followed a report of the right-hander dealing with shoulder inflammation that didn't bother Zimmermann enough to cause him to miss a start but did warrant treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs and did lead the Nationals to rearrange the rotation for his benefit. Johnson was clear when discussing the shoulder issue, however, that it was something every pitcher goes through over the course of a season.
For four innings on Sunday, Zimmermann was dominant, throwing 60 pitches and holding the Phillies scoreless while allowing just one hit before a fifth inning in which he gave up four hits, a walk and three runs while throwing 34 pitches. "I thought he was throwing a heck of a ballgame," Johnson said afterward, "and just kind of... the moment shifted and everybody started kind of centering on him. But that can happen." Zimmermann told reporters, including CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman, that, "'The first four innings were kind of a breeze,'" but then, "'In the fifth inning, I just hit a wall and got in a little bit of trouble.'" Zimmermann said he felt strong, however, and for the first four innings he looked like the ace the Nationals will need him to be when Strasburg is eventually shut down.
A pitcher who's preferred to remain under the radar has been thrust into the spotlight by his connection to Strasburg, and mentioned often as the template for the Nats' plan to shut their no.1 starter down, but once Strasburg's done the spotlight will only grow brighter as Zimmermann goes further into a season than he's ever gone before in games with pressure unlike anything he's likely ever experienced. As much as his manager might insist that no one game is bigger than another, the next month of Jordan Zimmermann's career will feature his biggest starts yet as a professional.
Will the bulldog mentality, the ability to pitch through pain and everything that originally attracted the Nationals to the Wisconsin-born right-hander when they drafted him thrust Zimmermann into the national spotlight for reasons other than his role as a template for Strasburg's shut down? The Nationals are counting on it.