VIERA, Fla. - After the 2010 season - probably the longest year of Jordan Zimmermann's baseball life - ended, Zimmermann retreated to the tiny town of Auburndale, Wis., where he grew up. He hunted for as long as he could through the fall in nearby Mosinee and added a trip to South Dakota. Zimmermann trekked through the woods with a bow or a rifle, shooting at whatever game or deer he could find.
Most of the time, he missed.
"I didn't do very well," Zimmermann said.
But the success of his hunting trips didn't really matter. It was enough for Zimmermann just to get away, to stop throwing a baseball for a couple months after a year of rehab, throwing programs and minor league starts before his eventual return to the majors from Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann had been grinding nonstop for more than a year, and at last he could take a break.
When he finally returned to throwing, Zimmermann was met with a pleasant surprise: His arm, after getting a respite from throwing a baseball, had come all the way back.
He booked a flight to Florida for Feb. 4, bypassing a chance to watch the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl with his friends and instead cheering for the team by himself from a bar near Viera. The reason? Zimmermann was finally back at full health, and he wanted to get to work early.
"I could tell the improvement from just the little time I took off," Zimmermann said. "I've got full range of motion back, so everything's good now."
This season is something of a strange crossroads for Zimmermann. He's in his first full year back from surgery, and will likely be capped between 150 and 160 innings because of it. But he's going to be 25 in May, and the Nationals are ready to see if he can cash in on his enormous promise.
Zimmermann's name was in almost every trade discussion the team had for established pitchers this winter, and the Nationals were reluctant to give him up. He's the one starter in their rotation who has shutdown stuff, and until Stephen Strasburg gets back, he'll be counted on to give them a boost.
"We're not looking for Jordan to go out there and give us 200 innings this year," manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's more of the future. But we do want him to go out there and be a stabilizer. He's a guy who I think right now around baseball, regardless of what rotation he was in, would probably be looked at as a third starter. But we feel like he's going to be better than that. It doesn't all have to happen this year, but we do want to make progress toward that."
Zimmermann showed signs of it late last season, allowing two runs in his final 11 innings while striking out eight batters in his last two outings. He was touching 96 mph with his fastball, and his slider - which might be his best pitch - should be sharper this year now that he's fully recovered. He gave up eight homers in seven games last year, and still needs to work on his changeup.
But he's one of the few pitchers in the mix for a starting spot who can overpower hitters, and he's hoping the time he spent missing deer will help him miss even more bats this year.
"This is going to be a big year," Zimmermann said. "I've got to come out and show people I belong up here. I had surgery, and I've got to show people I can come back from surgery, and be as good or better than what I was."