Jordan Zimmermann, as publicly stoic and unemotional a ballplayer as you’ll ever meet, was already feeling his eyes begin to well up as he discussed his decision to retire Tuesday on a Zoom session with reporters who cover each of the three teams he pitched for during his career.
“I just felt like after 15 years of playing ball, my mind was still in it, but my body wasn’t,” the right-hander said.
And when, about 12 minutes into the call, Zimmermann was asked by a writer from Detroit about his disappointing five seasons with the Tigers, that’s when the emotions become too much to handle.
“I just wish I would’ve stayed healthy,” he said, at first holding back tears but ultimately unable to suppress them.
This was a side of Zimmermann few, if any, have ever seen. Construct one image in your mind of him, and you’ll probably either see his arms raised in joy upon watching Steven Souza Jr. make a diving catch to secure the first no-hitter in Nationals history, or perhaps his stone-faced glare toward the plate as he made a big pitch to escape a jam.
That’s the Zimmerman everyone in D.C. came to know and love from 2009-15, during which he was as consistently effective as any starting pitcher in baseball.
Tommy John surgery disrupted his rookie season and restricted his workload in 2010 and 2011, when he was shut down for September amid far less fanfare than Stephen Strasburg would experience upon finding himself in the exact same situation one year later. But what came next established Zimmermann’s reputation as a reliable workhorse.
From 2012-15, he went 58-32 with a 3.13 ERA. He averaged 32 starts and 203 innings during that span. He would start twice in the postseason (Game 2 of both the 2012 and 2014 National League Division Series) and make one memorable relief appearance (Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS), further cementing his place as one of the most prominent Nationals who elevated the franchise from perennial loser to perennial winner.
“The (seven) years I was there, that kind of put me on the map and got my career going,” he said. “I remember getting there the first couple years, we were losing 100 games. To be able to turn that around and have some winning ballclubs and go to the playoffs a few times is something I’ll never forget.”
Nor will he ever forget his single greatest moment on a baseball diamond: Sept. 28, 2014.
Pitching an otherwise meaningless regular season finale in advance of the NLDS, Zimmermann carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Marlins. He got Adeiny Hechavarria to ground out, then Jarrod Saltalamacchia to fly out, then watched in horror when Christian Yelich drilled a ball to deep left-center.
But then Zimmermann’s demoralization flipped to jubilation when Souza (who had just been inserted to replace Ryan Zimmerman - yes, in left field) made a spectacular diving catch at the warning track to clinch the first no-hitter in Nationals history.
“I thought it was in the gap for a double,” Zimmermann said. “That’s why you could see my reaction was the way it was. I thought it was for sure a double and I’d be coming out of the game. But he made a great play and it was something I’ll never forget.”
Who knew how quickly things would go downhill for Zimmermann from there? He famously pitched 8 2/3 innings a week later against the Giants before manager Matt Williams pulled him in favor of Drew Storen, turning a potential Game 2 win into an 18-inning nightmare. Zimmermann would then battle through a mediocre 2015 season, one he knew would be his last in D.C. after the Nats signed Max Scherzer for $210 million.
Zimmermann would land in Detroit on a five-year, $110 million contract that became an albatross for the Tigers. During those five seasons, he went 25-41 with a 5.63 ERA. Worse, he averaged only 19 starts and 103 innings while battling a variety of injuries that turned the most reliable pitcher in the majors into one of the worst.
He was prepared to walk away after the 2020 season, but then the Brewers came calling with a minor league offer and an invitation to spring training. Zimmermann, who grew up in tiny Auburndale, Wis., couldn’t pass up a chance to pitch for his home state team, but when he didn’t make the opening day roster and wasn’t called up by the end of April, he decided it was time to call it quits.
He prepared to head home, only to get a call a few hours later from the Brewers: Injuries had opened a spot in their bullpen, and they wanted Zimmermann to join them.
“It was pretty crazy how it happened,” he said. “I was basically retired for a couple hours up north, and they gave me a call and said they needed some help. So I came down and gave them a few innings and tried to bridge the gap, cause there were a lot of IL guys. I knew I wouldn’t be there long, but I wanted to be able to help them out, bridge the gap.”
Zimmermann would wind up making two relief appearances, allowing five runs in 5 2/3 innings. Uncomfortable with the workload of a reliever for the first time in his career, and with the Brewers staff getting healthier, he finally knew it was time to say goodbye.
He seemed at peace with his decision, though he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. He turns 35 in a few days and has a whole life still in front of him.
It may not have ended how Zimmermann (or anyone who watched him) could’ve foreseen, but given where he came from, it’s still a pretty amazing story in the end.
“I guess my proudest thing would be I was a small-town kid, went to a Division III school and made it to the big leagues,” he said. “That’s tough to do.”