Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Jordan Zimmermann finished the season with back-to-back strong outings.
No, this wasn't exactly a well-played game from the Nationals' perspective. And had it taken place earlier in the season, or with more on the line, there would have been plenty to pick apart and analyze.
But this being Game 160 of what will ultimately be at least a 92-loss season, the most significant development tonight was the one real positive thing to happen from the Nats' perspective: Jordan Zimmermann's six stellar innings on the mound.
"That's the bright spot of the night," Jim Riggleman said, "his performance."
It may seem like sugarcoating to focus on the guy who pitched the first six innings of a 10-inning game and who didn't factor into the eventual outcome. But let's be honest here. In the grand scheme of things, what was more important tonight: That Morgan and Maxwell butchered a routine fly ball, that the Nats were three-hit by Misch and Takahashi and struck out 14 times, that Clippard served up a game-winning homer or that Zimmermann successfully completed his first season back from Tommy John surgery?
Zimmermann deserves the attention tonight. He wasn't quite as dominant as he was seven days ago when he was firing 96 mph fastballs past the Braves' lineup. But he was equally as effective, allowing three hits over six innings, allowing only one run on Ike Davis' fourth-inning homer and not issuing one walk.
It was a fitting conclusion to an impressive return from elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Zimmermann's final pitching numbers in seven big-league starts (1-2, 4.94 ERA, 31 innings, 31 hits, 10 walks, 27 strikeouts) don't blow you away. But the numbers can be deceiving since it was a relatively small sample size and he was dealing with a limited pitch count (he never surpassed 86 pitches in any one start).
More important than the numbers were the facts Zimmermann's arm felt strong, his velocity was good, his curveball had bite and his command was at times excellent.
"It feels awesome," he said when asked about his arm. "It comes back [from previous starts] good, better than before. My velocity is there. And my control's pretty much there. I think I'm ready."
We tend to take it for granted that pitchers come all the way from Tommy John surgery, sometimes stronger than before. The procedure has become so commonplace, and so many big-name pitchers have gone through it. But this was anything but a sure thing. It required a year's worth of rehab from Zimmermann to get back to this point, and until he actually stood on a big-league mound against big-league hitters, there was no way to know for sure how this would turn out.
"When I first had the surgery, I didn't know when I'd be back or how I'd feel or anything," Zimmermann said. "But everything went so smooth. I'm just really thankful to be back here and pitching."
The Nationals are even more thankful to have one of their top young pitchers back at full strength heading into 2011. They may not have missed anyone more than Zimmermann this season. It perhaps wasn't as big a void as they'll experience next year without Stephen Strasburg. But given the unsettled nature of the rest of their rotation, Zimmermann's absence absolutely was noticeable.
Now, he can enjoy some actual time off this winter after rehabbing straight through the last one. Then he can start up a typical throwing program shortly before spring training and report to Viera ready to give the Nationals a full season at full strength.
"I think I've accomplished enough for this year," he said. "I've been throwing since February, so my arm needs a little bit of a break. The way I'm going right now, I'd like to have a couple more starts. But it is what it is. The season's over. Time to give my arm a little break and be ready for the spring."
Zimmermann's seven big-league starts came after 10 minor-league starts. If you combine them all together, he wound up with a 2.93 ERA, only 61 hits allowed in 76 2/3 innings and a really impressive 61-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Most importantly, he never once experienced any kind of arm trouble.
"That's real good," Riggleman said. "That's testament to how hard he worked. To come back after that surgery, it's real encouraging. It kind of gives us hope for Strasburg. Strasburg can look at what Jordan did. If he can work the same way and come back to his game the way Zimmermann has come back to his, it says a lot for our future."
Strasburg is only in the very beginning stages of his rehab. There are plenty more hurdles to cross between now and next September, when perhaps he'll make his own triumphant return to the majors. There are no guarantees he'll make it all the way back.
But if nothing else, he's now got a role model in Zimmermann, a shining example of perseverance for someone who's going to need to display a lot of that over the next 12 months.