List of league's elite starters might grow one name longer

ATLANTA - When Kurt Suzuki came over to the Nationals in the middle of last season after a trade with Oakland, there was one pitcher he was especially excited to work with.

He had seen plenty of highlights of Stephen Strasburg on TV and had an idea what to expect from the Nationals' ace. He had already caught Gio Gonzalez when the left-hander was with the A's.

There was another Nats starter with whom Suzuki wasn't too familiar. But one of Suzuki's former teammates with the A's, Josh Willingham, had raved about this guy, telling Suzuki that the young right-hander from Wisconsin was a bulldog with top-notch stuff.

That guy, of course, is Jordan Zimmermann.

Somehow, Zimmermann still tends to fly under the radar around the league. It might be because he's in a rotation with Strasburg and Gonzalez and there's only so much attention to go around in one pitching staff.

There will come a time in the not-too-distant future, however, when people will have to start including Zimmermann in the discussion of the top starting pitchers in the game. Given the way Zimmermann has pitched for the last two-plus years, he's earned the right to be in that group.

"No question about it," manager Davey Johnson said. "I thought he was among the elites last year. We didn't get him much run support last year. But he pitched awfully well and he's taken it up another notch this year."

Dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season, Zimmermann has now posted a 2.70 ERA in his last 38 starts. He's allowing just 0.75 home runs per nine innings in that span and his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is a lowly 1.09.

Here's where Zimmermann ranks among big league starters in a few key pitching categories this season:

Wins: t-2nd
ERA: 6th
WHIP: 2nd
Innings pitched: 3rd
Pitches per inning: t-1st
Opponents' OPS: 6th

That's not among National League starters. That's among all major league starters.

Small sample size, yes, but it's no fluke. Zimmermann was leading the majors in ERA late in July last season. He's consistently starting to put himself up there among the league leaders in the categories that matter.

Zimmermann's strikeouts have dropped, from 9.1 per nine innings when he first broke into the majors in 2009 to 7.0 per nine last season to 5.5 per nine so far this year. But pitching coach Steve McCatty actually likes to see that trend.

Because Zimmermann is striking out fewer guys, he's needed fewer pitches to get through innings, allowing him to work deeper into games. In his six starts this season, Zimmermann has gone at least seven innings in four of them, and that includes two complete games and last night's eight-inning gem.

With the emergence of his changeup, Zimmermann now has four quality pitches he can throw in pretty much any count, allowing him to keep hitters honest.

Suzuki heard a handful of Braves hitters muttering expletives under their breath last night after being set down by Zimmermann, and we can expect a few more from opposing batters the rest of this season when Zimmermann is on the mound.

Zimmermann might be the No. 3 starter in the Nats' rotation, but he's pitching like an ace, one the rest of the league will have to take notice of sooner or later.

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