Ted Leavengood: Dark cloud removed, could Zimmermann earn "Smiley" nickname?

Baseball has a way of evening out the numbers over time. For the past few seasons, Jordan Zimmermann has been known as a hard-luck pitcher, the kind who cannot buy a run when he needs it, whose run support every time he takes the mound seems to be wanting.

Or at least that is the way it used to be. In 2011, he was the best pitcher in the Washington rotation with an ERA of 3.18, but he had a losing record, only eight wins against 11 defeats.

His 2012 statistics suggest a pitcher who should have won many more games than the 12 with which he ended the season. Baseball Reference calculates his 2012 WAR at 4.7, just behind Gio Gonzalez and fifth-best among National League pitchers. His gutsy performances in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, when he was called on in relief, will be one of the memorable moments of the 2012 season.

So it is gratifying to see the Nationals' bats come alive behind him this season. The other Zimmerman, Ryan, provided all that J-Z needed with a two-run single in the first and a two-run home run in fourth on Monday. Not that Zimmermann has needed a wealth of support. His ERA stood at 2.08 going into the Monday evening game in Miami and he had won both of his starts this season.

Still, the worry is there, that things could still revert to form. So seeing 10 runs put on the board by the Nationals in the first five innings against Miami were gratifying.

It took the pressure off not only Zimmermann, but the team as a whole. He was still pumping 95-mph fastballs past the Marlins in the sixth inning and though he briefly lost his focus in the seventh, it was a relatively easy win - his third victory of the season.

Three victories in April is a major departure from form for J-Z. Last year, he had only three victories to his credit when he took the mound in Denver on June 27. Zimmermann had a losing record of 3-6 that night despite Washington's overall record standing at 12 games above .500.

There seemed to be a dark cloud hanging over far too many of his games. It was baffling since his 2.89 ERA was one of the best in the National League. But that night, June 27, 2012, it happened. Maybe the gods forgot that Zimmermann was pitching that night, or maybe they decided he had suffered long enough. Either way, they cut him some major slack.

Hitting in the rarified air of Denver, the Nationals jumped all over a rookie pitcher named Edwar Cabrera. He has not been heard from again, disappearing after that night like a fleeting shadow from a Bernard Malamud novel. Washington scored runs in each of the first four innings and led 9-1 by the beginning of the fifth. Tyler Moore, Zimmerman and Ian Desmond all homered in the first three innings. When J-Z left the game at the end of the seventh inning, the score favored the Nationals by an 11-1 margin.

When he took the mound the next time, Washington scored nine runs against Tim Lincecum and gave Zimmermann his fifth win. He won three more times in July to send his record soaring to 8-6. The Nationals went on a rampage from that point forward, scoring nine runs for J-Z when he won his 10th game and poetically enough, 12 runs when he won game 12.

All is well now for Auburndale High School's favorite graduate. He is one of the gutsiest pitchers on the team, and maybe on the roster overall. When the Washington Nationals team is beat up from a tough three-game homestand against the league-leading Atlanta Braves, they can call on Zimmermann. When the bullpen is overworked by a long afternoon in which Atlanta scores nine times, Zimmermann can be counted on for a nine-inning complete game win of only 103 pitches.

Stephen Strasburg is still No. 1 in the Washington rotation. Gonzalez may have the winning smile and the gaggle of fans swooning for him near the rail. But since that night in 2012 when the Nationals started hitting for Zimmermann, he has been noticeably happier, registering just a tick above absolute stoic. Maybe if he wins 20 games this season, we can start calling him "Smiley" Zimmermann. With three wins in the middle of April, it is a thought worth savoring: a smiling J-Z with 20 wins. No doubt if he wins 20, the fans and even his teammates, can call him anything they like.

Ted Leavengood is author of "Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball," released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the "Outta the Parkway" Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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