Nats need Zimmermann to stay cool

The Washington Nationals earned win No. 88 on the season Tuesday night against the New York Mets and moved yet another game closer to clinching the National League East with the come-from-behind 5-3 victory.

But if there was anything at all to be gleaned from starter Jordan Zimmermann’s 29th outing, it’s that Washington’s seemingly inevitable first division title may well end up representing the peak of its season, rather than the start of something special.

One night after Gio Gonzalez became the majors’ first 19-game winner, the right-hander Zimmermann took the mound at Citi Field and, once again, reminded fans why Washington, without the services of recently shelved ace Stephen Strasburg, may not have staying power once the playoffs roll around.

It’s not that Zimmermann was bad against the offensively inept Mets, who were held to three or fewer runs for the 12th straight home game. Zimmermann, who’s had a career year, threw five innings and allowed two earned runs on six hits and three walks — and, let’s not forget, the Nats did win the game, even if Zimmermann didn’t factor in the decision.

But Zimmermann (10-8, 3.01) also wasn’t very good, either. He wasn’t himself. He wasn’t precise. He wasn’t efficient. He wasn’t a star. And therein lies the problem — because Washington needs Zimmermann to be all of those things every single time he takes the mound.

If the Nationals want their first playoff run to be one worth remembering, they’ll need their de facto ace to look a lot more like the Zimmermann of July, who went 4-0 with an 0.97 ERA in six starts, than the Zimmermann who has gone 2-2 with a 5.36 ERA in his past eight starts.

“It was just one of those games tonight,” said Zimmermann, who has had too many of "those games" lately.

That includes a string of four starts in which he went 0-2 with a 7.91 ERA, including a shelling at the hands of a potential playoff foe in the Cardinals, while batters hit .349 off of him.

"I did all I could to keep the team in the game,” Zimmermann continued. “I obviously wasn’t on top of my game (and) wasn’t very sharp, but I got some outs when I needed to and made some pitches when I needed to."

Zimmermann faced a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the first inning after allowing a leadoff single to Ruben Tejada and walking Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis. He was able to escape unscathed, however, after striking out Mike Baxter and Jason Bay, but the inning cost him 33 pitches.

Zimmermann worked quickly through the second and fourth innings, retiring the Mets in 11 and 15 pitches, respectively. But he slogged through a 24-pitch third inning and a 21-pitch fifth inning for a total of 104 — only the ninth 100-pitch outing of the year for Zimmermann, who missed most of the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery.

“I just wasn’t locating my fastball,” Zimmermann said. “I was just missing by a little bit; I was a hair off with all the fastballs, and the curveball and slider were all great. … It’s going to be a struggle all night if I’m not able to throw a strike right away.”

Coming into Tuesday, hitters were batting .291 off Zimmermann when they started an at-bat with a 1-0 count, as opposed to .207 when Zimmermann started with a first-pitch strike. On Tuesday, 10 of the 23 batters Zimmermann faced took a first-pitch ball — including four straight in the fourth and fifth innings — but fortunately, only two went on to reach base or else a lackluster outing could have been awful.

It also helped that Zimmermann got a lift from his offense, which has averaged 4.5 runs of support per start.

Jayson Werth reached base five times, Bryce Harper had the first four-hit game of his career, Ryan Zimmerman extended his hit streak to 15 games, and Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit, two-run homer in the seventh let the 10-game winner Zimmermann off the hook for what would have been his third loss in his past six outings.

Davey Johnson said he’s not concerned about Zimmermann’s recent fizzle, saying that he’s “still throwing the ball real good,” but rather, the veteran manager is chalking up the 26-year-old’s relative struggles to a simple case of wide eyes.

“We’re in a pennant race,” Johnson said. “Guys get a little over-amped up and it’s about learning how to control those emotions, stay with yourself, not fly open and not jump at the hitter. And this is all a part of that learning experience.”

Fortunately for the young Nats, they have a little bit of cushion to work with while learning on the fly. But experience often separates the winners from the losers in the playoffs, and Washington has a team with little of it — and an ace that won’t get any more this year.

But there’s still a World Series for the taking. Zimmermann and the Nats need to figure things out fast, or learn about October baseball by watching with Strasburg.

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