Zimmermann excelling, but being handled carefully

FLUSHING, N.Y. - Once the Nationals blew open last night’s game in the 10th inning and took a four-run lead, Davey Johnson decided he didn’t need to waste another bullpen arm for the bottom of the frame.

Instead, he just left Tom Gorzelanny in the game, asking him to notch the final three outs.

Before Gorzelanny could work the bottom of the 10th, however, he had to hit in the top half. Getting a rare plate appearance, Gorzelanny, who already had two singles this year, looked at five pitches from Mets reliever Pedro Beato, four of which were balls, and then slowly walked to first base.

After the game, fellow reliever Sean Burnett chided Gorzelanny for taking his time leaving the batter’s box before trotting down to first, saying the long reliever was trying to let the umpire give him another chance to hit.

Gorzelanny jokingly responded that Burnett, who walked in his lone plate appearance this year, should register a hit this season before he can talk.

Oh, you two.

zimmermann pitching coors field sidebar.jpgAs much as we’ve talked about the dominance of Jordan Zimmermann lately, one thing we haven’t really talked about is how quick Davey Johnson has been with the hook for his right-hander.

Zimmermann got through six innings last night on just 89 pitches, and was cruising through the Mets lineup. But instead of trying to get one (or possibly even two) more innings out of Zimmermann, Johnson said he knew he was going to his bullpen for the seventh inning.

That marked the second time in Zimmermann’s last three starts that he’s been yanked before reaching the 90-pitch mark, even though both times he had completed six innings in dominating fashion. The same situation came up back on July 13 in a game against the Marlins.

In fact, Zimmermann hasn’t topped the 100-pitch mark in any of his last six starts. He also hasn’t gone more than seven innings in any of his 20 starts this season. The rationale for the early hook can’t possibly be performance, as Zimmermann has allowed one run or fewer in each of those last six outings and now has the fifth-best ERA in the majors.

So why is Johnson’s leash with Zimmermann so short? Is it fair to assume that the Nationals skipper wants to make sure that his righty still has something left in the tank late in the year after working just 161 1/3 innings last year?

“There’s no question,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to get into specifics for why I do things, but it was the best thing for him and the best thing for the ballclub that he departed after six.”

Last season was Zimmermann’s first full year since undergoing Tommy John surgery late in the 2009 campaign. He was shut down after 161 1/3 innings, a plan which the Nationals intend to loosely follow with Stephen Strasburg this season.

There aren’t thought to be any hard restrictions on Zimmermann this year, two years removed from the surgery. But given the fact that the righty threw just 134 innings in 2008, 100 in 2009, 70 2/3 in 2010 and 161 1/3 last year, the team likely wants to make sure that they don’t go overboard with Zimmermann this season.

He’ll be counted on to deliver quality outings in September and October, and as he gets up near that 180-190 innings mark, his arm could begin to tire. That’s something Zimmermann believes his manager might be trying to help prevent him from.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I haven’t been throwing too many pitches, so it’s a long season and we still have a long ways to go. I hope I’m still fresh at the end of the year.”

Given how good Zimmermann has been and how much the Nationals will need him once Strasburg is shut down, Johnson might be handling him carefully the final two months of the regular season. That could lead to more situations like the one last night, in which Zimmermann finds himself out of the game even though he still has something left in the tank.

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