Jordan Zimmermann faced the St. Louis Cardinals on national television on September 1st, when the Cards knocked the 26-year-old '07 2nd Round pick out after just 3.2 IP in Nationals Park in a start in which he allowed a season-high eight runs, all of them earned on eight hits. The start vs St. Louis was the sixth in a string of August and early September outings in which the Nats' right-hander struggled, going 1-2 with the Nats going 3-3 over a stretch in which he posted a 6.23 ERA with nine walks (2.67 BB/9) and 26 Ks (7.71 K/9) in 30.1 IP. That rough period came after a month of July in which Zimmermann earned the NL Pitcher of the Month Award in recognition of his work in six starts in which he was 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA, 2.08 FIP, four walks (0.97 BB/9) and 31 K's (7.54 K/9) in 37.0 IP.
Davey Johnson told reporters repeatedly when he struggled that it was just a case of Zimmermann getting too much rest and overthrowing, being too strong, etc.
Following the loss to the Cards, Zimmermann finished out the season with a string of five starts in which he put up a 2.63 ERA with 10 walks (2.90 BB/9) and 31 Ks (9.00 K/9) in 31.0 IP. The Nats' starter was 3-0, while the Nats went 5-0 in those outings and the Auburndale, Wisconsin-born, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point-educated starter ended the year with a 6.1 inning start against the same Cardinals who'd knocked him around a month earlier. In that start, the fifth against St. Louis in Zimmermann's four-year MLB career, he received no decision in a 6-4 Nats' win in which he gave up seven hits, two walks and three runs while striking out five.
The no-decision left the fourth-year starter (12-8) with a 2.94 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 43 walks and 153 Ks after 32 starts and 195.2 IP. After the strong outing in his next-to-last start of the year against Milwaukee, Nats' skipper Davey Johnson gently chided reporters who had expressed concern about Zimmermann after reports of shoulder fatigue/inflammation which required medical treatment preceded the rough stretch he pitched through in August.
"He's as strong as a bull," Johnson said, "You guys were worried about him because he had a couple not Jordan-esque-type starts, but he'd had a little bit too much rest in-between. But last time out he was outstanding and he knows what he needs do to be successful up here and I like where he's at." After Zimmermann's final start of the year, the Nats' 69-year-old skipper expressed disappointment that the team hadn't been able to get him the win in his fifth career start against the Cardinals, though they did win the game after Drew Storen's blown save.
"I really feel bad that we didn't save it for [Zimmermann]," Johnson told reporters, "He pitched a heck of a ballgame. Really great ballgame. Unfortunately we didn't save it in nine. But he was outstanding." The NLDS Game Two starter's no-decision that day left him (0-2) with a 9.12 ERA, six walks (2.10 BB/9) and 21 Ks (7.36 K/9) in five starts and 25.2 IP against the Cardinals so far in his career. In a press conference at Busch Stadium Sunday afternoon, Zimmermann said he was impressed with what he saw from the Cards the last time through St. Louis.
"They really put up some runs," Zimmermann said, "And they're definitely a good hitting ballclub and we've just got to make some pitches and make better quality pitches and just pitch the way we've been pitching all year and do our part. The offense is doing great and we're going to keep scoring runs here and see what happens."
Zimmermann said that though the Nationals were able to enjoy winning the division, the team didn't have much time to celebrate because they knew they had to keep winning ballgames. "We celebrated and enjoyed it a little bit," the pitcher explained, "But we also had to keep playing some meaningful games." The Nats kept pressing, however, according to the pitcher who said they kept, "... playing as hard as we could because we knew we had to have the best record."
The right-hander was drafted in part because the Nationals' scouts liked his toughness. The tales of Zimmermann pitching in college with his broken jaw wired shut after he was hit by a line drive are part of the Nats' starter's origin story. He's also fairly unflappable, rarely showing emotion on the mound. Zimmermann told reporters before his first postseason start that he hasn't actually been nervous about a start since his MLB debut back on April 20, 2009. That night he gave up two runs on six hits and earned his first major league win in a 3-2 Nats' victory over the Braves.
"I don't see anything changing this time," Zimmermann said, "I may have a few butterflies when I first walk out there, but I'm sure they'll go away quickly and I'm going to take it as just another ballgame. I'm sure the fans are going to be pretty rowdy and loud, but I'm going to try to zone them out as best I can and pitch the way I know I can pitch." Before the seventh inning of his final start of the year against the Cardinals, Zimmermann had limited St. Louis to four hits. In the seventh, however, he gave up three-straight one-out hits and two of the runs that ultimately counted against him. (Sean Burnett allowed the third of three runs charged to the starter to score.)
"I thought I threw the ball pretty well for six innings," Zimmermann explained, "And I got to the seventh and kind of hit a little bit of a wall and didn't make any quality pitches and that's when they got to me. So I just need to focus later in the game and make some better pitches and quality pitches. I kind of breezed through the first six innings and just hit that wall in the seventh." Zimmermann's only pitched into the eighth inning twice in his major league career, once when he threw a complete game shutout at home in 2011. In the seventh inning so far in his career (21.2 IP), the right-hander has an 8.72 ERA with 34 hits allowed in 94 at bats. He's surrendered six doubles and five home runs, with opponents posting a .362/.444/.585 line against the Nationals' starter.
That's over 81 regular season starts, however. Monday afternoon the pitcher makes his postseason debut in Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Even Zimmermann admitted this stage is unlike anything he's seen before. "I don't think there's any games... or anything close to this," Zimmermann said, "I went to the College World Series, there was 5,000 people there. That was nothing compared to this." Zimmermann takes the mound with a 1-0 series lead and a chance to put St. Louis down two games in a five-game series. Even if he is nervous, he'll never let you or the Cardinals know.
• Watch Jordan Zimmermann's NLDS Press Conference: