In the long-term plans of the Washington Nationals, Jordan Zimmermann will be a No. 2 guy, a complementary left hook to the right-hand lead represented by a healthy Stephen Strasburg. But with Strasburg on the shelf until at least September, Zimmermann became the de facto No. 1 starter entering the 2011 season despite the fact that he would be pitching under a 160-inning limit.
After a very strong 6.1-inning performance in Sunday afternoon’s 2-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, which sent the Nationals into the All-Star Break with a record of 46-46 and halted a particularly morale-sapping three-game losing streak, Zimmermann has pitched 115 of his allotted 160 innings. He extended his streak of pitching six innings or more in his starts to 13 and dropped his ERA from 2.82 to 2.66. He was, in short, exactly the man the Nats needed. His slider and curveball were particularly effective on this day, exploding down and away from Colorado’s right-handed hitters and, more often than not, finding the outside corner of home plate umpire Brian Knight’s strike zone.
Zimmermann’s (and Washington’s) win didn’t come easily, as the Nationals offense continued to struggle. This time, it was Jhoulys Chacin who caused the trouble as he retired the first 11 Nationals he faced before giving up a two-out single to Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom of the fourth inning. That was Washington’s last hit before Ian Desmond led off the bottom of the sixth with a laser that deflected off the glove of third baseman Ian Stewart and reached shortstop Troy Tulowitzki far to late for Colorado’s All-Star to do anything about it. Zimmermann, proving himself doubly indispensible, laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt and Roger Bernadina did the rest, driving in the only run the Nats would need with a shattered-bat single to right field. Rick Ankiel, who had entered the game in the eight inning as a defensive replacement, provided the icing in the bottom of that inning with a solo home run into the first row of the right field seats off left-hander Matt Reynolds. It was Ankiel’s first home run off a left-handed pitcher since 2008.
Other members of the Nats were not so lucky. Jayson Werth, for one, went 0-for-3 at the plate to drop his average to .215 entering the All-Star Break. The big-money right fielder was greeted with applause by most of the 21,186 at Nationals Park when he was announced for his first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning. The fans held their collective tongues when Werth flied out to center field and left field in his first two at-bats (both times on first-pitch swings), but could restrain themselves no longer when he lifted a meager foul pop-up in the bottom of the seventh inning with Michael Morse standing on second base after a one-out double. At that point, the boos hailed down on Werth all the way back to the dugout.
As the season winds to its conclusion, and as the Nationals (likely) continue to drift around the fringes of the National League wild card race, Werth’s ongoing offensive struggles will continue to be the story, at least until he snaps out of it. But unlike on Saturday night, when Werth grounded into a game-ending double play with the tying run at third base, his struggles were only a footnote to Zimmermann’s great performance. It’s doubtful Werth will take any consolation from this as he prepares for his three days off, but at this point, he’ll take any consolation he can get.