Changing things up, Zimmermann adds to his repertoire

VIERA, Fla. - Jordan Zimmermann isn't usually prone to wordy dissections of his pitching lines, so when the Nationals right-hander spends more than four minutes responding to questions about his performance, you know he's probably done something of note.

In this case, it was the kind of spring start that rarely happens: After surrendering a leadoff single to Andy Dirks on Monday, Zimmermann was as locked in as a pitcher can get, retiring the next 18 hitters in order and spraying ground balls around the infield in the process.

"You feel like you can't do anything wrong," he said. "Everywhere you throw the ball, it goes where you want it to."

Right off the bat, he was asked what was working. The better question might have been whether there was anything that didn't work.

"I had all four pitches working," he said. "It was one of those days you have everything working, you know? You can locate anything anytime you want. It's hard to come by. They don't come ... often. When you have everything working, it's a lot easier. I was keeping everything in the bottom of the zone and that's why I got all the ground balls."

Not for the Tigers, who brought a lot of their front-line sluggers who couldn't figure out Zimmermann. While the 12 groundouts suggested they were beating his sinker into the ground, Zimmermann said it was his new change-up that was the most effective piece in his arsenal.

The first time through, he was starting hitters with fastballs, daring them to swing. The second time through, Zimmermann integrated curves and sliders into his first-pitch sequence. That set hitters up for the change-up, particularly when Zimmermann was behind in the count.

"Kept it below the zone and they were swinging at it. Weak contact and ground balls," he said.

And no mention of the dead arm period that he was battling in his last two starts. Zimmermann threw 67 pitches, 48 for strikes, and got his pitch count up to 90 with an additional 20 throws in the bullpen after he logged the deepest start of the Grapefruit League season by a Nationals starting pitcher.

"That's pretty much a thing of the past now," Zimmermann said of the dead arm talk. "It usually sticks around for a start or two, but it's gone and I feel good."

Integrating a new pitch to a repertoire may seem easy, but it's not - even in spring training when pitchers try new things. Doing so runs the risk of messing up a pitcher's rhythm, and pitchers are notorious creatures of habit.

That didn't happen to Zimmermann, who surmised he threw as many as 10 change-ups to the Tigers.

"If you throw a first-pitch fastball for a ball, you can come back with that change-up and if you can locate that, it's definitely a good weapon to have," he said. "It definitely helps out. They sit dead-red fastball and if you can throw a change-up in there 85 or 87 (mph), they're going to be out front and most of the time get some weak contact."

He threw a few changes on the first pitch, something the Tigers weren't ready for.

Manager Davey Johnson might have considered letting Zimmermann go longer if not for the fact that his bullpen needs work. Like Zimmermann, Johnson was pleased with the progress of the change-up.

"It's a big pitch," Johnson said. "Just adds to his repertoire. Everything's usually pretty hard and it gets them off his fastball. It's a good pitch."

So good that Johnson isn't worried a bit about the righty using it.

"A lot of times, you're thinking about that pitch the whole game, when you can put it in," Johnson said. "But I think he's using it (right)."

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