Nationals manager Jim Riggleman finally confirmed what has been suspected all week and reported in various corners - that Jordan Zimmermann will return to the majors on Thursday to take the injured Stephen Strasburg's spot in the rotation.
Zimmermann, of course, is making his own comeback from injury, having returned from Tommy John surgery that ended his season last August. It's easily forgotten in the fervor over Strasburg, but Zimmermann was the Nationals' best pitching prospect the first half of last year, storming through spring training and leading the team with 92 strikeouts in 16 starts before going on the disabled list.
At times, he looked dominant last year, with a fastball that touched 94 mph, a power slider, a tight curveball and a dogged mentality that took him from tiny Wisconsin-Stevens Point all the way to the majors. Zimmermann grew up pitching in frigid Wisconsin weather and came back a month after breaking his jaw in college, so why should big-league hitters scare him? He beat the Boston Red Sox last June, allowing one run on six hits in seven innings, and stopped the New York Mets on the road in his second big-league start. If Strasburg is the ace the Nationals build around, Zimmermann isn't far behind.
The 24-year-old vowed to be back in the majors a year after Tommy John surgery, and the only reason he missed that goal by two weeks was because the Nationals preferred to be cautious with him. He's mowed down hitters at every level of the minors, posting a combined 1.59 ERA in 10 starts and saving his best work for Triple-A Syracuse, where he allowed a run in 17 innings.
"Everything has been as good as it could be," manager Jim Riggleman said. "This is the next step. This is where he's been wanting to be for the last year. It's finally here."
The one weakness in Zimmermann's arsenal has historically been his changeup, which has lagged behind his other pitches. Zimmermann has been experimenting with a new grip that should add more drop to the pitch, though he was able to get by only throwing it 6.7 percent of the time last year. If he's able to turn that into an effective weapon, he could be even more dangerous.
Riggleman said the Nationals likely won't be running Zimmermann deep into games, but he should be set to stay in the rotation the rest of the year. He's thrown 39 2/3 innings in the minors this year - enough time to likely suss out any problems, Riggleman said.
"I saw him pitch one night. His delivery looked good," Riggleman said. "How he responded the next day after throwing, that was the main issue. It's nice that he did get some good results, but he made (it through) a lot of innings down there. He did a lot in Florida, he did a lot in his rehab. So the learning how to pitch again process, I'm sure it has taken place. But it's been evolving from the time that he got on the mound in Viera to his last one in Syracuse and his side session here (last month). It's all allowed him to go through that process to learn how to pitch again after the injury."