For five innings on Thursday night, Jordan Zimmermann wasn't just every bit the pitcher Cliff Lee was. He was better.
Lee threw up zero after zero against the Nationals' decimated lineup, racing ahead in the count and striking out five batters with his fastball, which can appear in any one of three iterations. But he gave up a pair of hits, and needed some aggressive Nationals baserunning to backfire to keep the game scoreless threw five innings.
Zimmermann, on the other hand, had no jams out of which to pitch. He mowed through the first 15 batters of the game, striking out four and allowing three balls out of the infield. His fastball was sitting at 94-95 mph, his slider was biting and he was throwing everything for strikes, instead of running up his pitch count like he's sometimes prone to doing.
Put simply, he was outpitching one of the game's best.
"That might be the best fastball I've ever seen," Lee said of Zimmermann after the game.
But there's a reason why bullpens have become such a dominant part of today's game; it's because many starting pitchers either aren't good enough to finish, or they're not economical enough to go the distance in today's world of strict pitch counts. Lee is both; he needed just 99 pitches to finish a complete game shutout, and still struck out 12. He allowed just three hitters to get to a three-ball count, and as the game drew to a close, he surged toward the finish line, striking out seven out of eight hitters at one point. Zimmermann wasn't helped by a defense that made two errors, but even if three unearned runs hadn't come in on him, the solo homer Carlos Ruiz hit on his seventh-inning hanging curveball would have been enough to win the game for the Phillies.
On Thursday, Zimmermann looked like a pitcher who should reasonably have a picture of Lee on his growth chart. He hasn't hit that level yet, though, and what might have been his most impressive major league start ended in a 4-0 loss.
"I just got outpitched tonight," Zimmermann said.
There's no shame in that, especially with the way the 24-year-old has looked in his first three starts of the season. He has a 2.45 ERA, has walked just three batters and has twice gotten through six innings in less than 85 pitches. He needed just 85 to get two batters into the eighth on Thursday; he hasn't struck out more than four in a start, but the way he's pitched has almost been more effective when the Nationals have a close watch on him in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. His fastball has been less of a strikeout pitch than a means to get ahead in the count, but he's also buying himself more leeway with his two off-speed pitches, particularly his slider.
"I saw him in Double-A. I'm a Jordan Zimmermann fan to the end," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That's Cliff Lee out there - a lot of pitchers would maybe have shied away. But he kept on going pitch-for-pitch with him. He hung that one curveball, but if he's pitching with a lead, I guarantee you he doesn't hang that curveball. That does not happen. I know he's got the wherewithal and the demeanor where if he's got a lead, he's going to keep the lead. There's no doubt in my mind that he doesn't hang that pitch if he doesn't have a lead."
Ah, but there's where the difference lays between promising young pitchers like Zimmermann and finished products like Lee. He walked just 18 hitters last year, and he hasn't allowed more than 17 homers in a season since 2006, the year before his Cy Young campaign. Mistakes rarely happen with Lee, and when they do, they're isolated. "(Lee and Roy Halladay) stay away from the big inning," third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "That's another reason they're so good."
That's been a problem for Zimmermann in the past, though not yet this year. If anything, he's looked more capable than ever of filling out the No. 2 spot in the rotation almost preordained for him since the Nationals first started dreaming of a Stephen Strasburg-Zimmermann pairing. By the time Strasburg returns from Tommy John surgery in September (or next spring), the Nationals will have two starters, both on the other side of baseball's most notorious operation, who can throw at least 96 mph, look line snarling wolves on the mound and have lived a combined 47 years.
At the moment, Zimmermann looks completely capable of being a worthy complement to Strasburg. The Nationals may get their own Halladay and Lee someday. But as well as Zimmermann pitched on Thursday, it was clear they're going to have to wait a little longer before that level is reached.
"It's experience and it's ability," manager Jim Riggleman said, "and both of those guys (Halladay and Lee) have both those things."