Zimmermann’s seventh-inning struggles burn him again in Nationals’ loss

To be clear, the reason Jordan Zimmermann didn’t get a win in his penultimate start of the season was the same reason he’s taken losses in five other impressive outings before Tuesday night: The Nationals didn’t score enough runs for him.

Zimmermann gave up two runs in 6 1/3 innings, taking a shutout into the seventh before giving up a home run to Sean Burroughs on an inside fastball. That was all the Diamondbacks needed for a 2-0 win, and Zimmermann lost for the sixth time this year when he gave up two runs or less.

But the right-hander’s win-loss record in 2011 isn’t the ultimate goal. Becoming a bulwark at the front of the Nationals’ rotation, the kind of pitcher who can throw into the seventh and eighth inning every time out, is, and Zimmermann is ending his first full year in the majors with a clear view of what he needs to do to get there.

Davey Johnson talks with the media about the Nationals’ 2-0 loss to the Diamondbacks

It happened again on Tuesday night, when he missed his location on a pitch that was supposed to be down and away to Burroughs, who hit it out for his first homer since 2005. Zimmermann has had several starts this year where he’s pitched into the seventh, only to falter there. It happened in Chicago two outings ago, and it happened again tonight.

To get to where the Nationals want him to be, Zimmermann has a clear threshold to cross.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Zimmermann said. “It’s happened a couple times this year where it’s always one pitch at the end of the game - a home run or a double or something. In a close ballgame, you can’t be giving those hits up. I feel like I’m focused. I feel like I’m doing everything I can out there. It always seems like it’s something with me toward the end of the game that always goes wrong.”

Zimmermann will make his final start of the season on Sunday before the Nationals shut him down in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. By all accounts, he’s progressed even beyond where pitching coach Steve McCatty hoped he could be. He’s gotten past a problem he had early in his career, where he struggled to get out of the first inning. He’s gone from being homer-prone at times to allowing home runs on less than five percent of his fly balls. Zimmermann has thrown more strikes, been more efficient with his pitches and turned his slider into a devastating out pitch. When the Nationals finally have him and Stephen Strasburg in the same rotation next year, they have every right to be excited.

But they hope both pitchers can turn into aces, and Zimmermann still needs to learn to pitch out of his own jams in late innings. Hitters were batting .385/.429/.667 in the seventh inning off him before tonight, and he gave up a walk, a homer and a double to the bottom three hitters in the Diamondbacks’ lineup.

His final pitch of the night, which pitcher Ian Kennedy smacked for a double, was his 109th of the night. That tied a career high, and while Zimmermann needs to get better at working deep into games, it’s not like he’s had many chances to do it. The Nationals have been cautious with him in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and it won’t be until next year that he has a chance to approach 190 or 200 innings in a season.

Still, there have been several times this year where he could have extended his night with better pitches in the seventh inning. That could have run Zimmermann out of innings by the end of tonight, and he could have ended his start with a win against the Diamondbacks.

Instead, he’ll go into his final outing of the year looking to correct the one thing that stands out in an otherwise stellar season.

“It’s extremely important for your top-end guys, that they get through those innings,” McCatty said. “To me, he was cruising. You’ve got to let guys go out there and learn to get through those innings. He’s going to do that. He will do that. He’s got great stuff, he’s a great competitor, and I know he’s disappointed and upset. Guys that are like that, they get through it because they don’t quit. It’s a painful learning experience, but we’ve all been through it. Everybody that’s started in the big leagues and has been very successful, you’ve got to learn to get through that. It’s a painful lesson.”