Zimmermann's toughness illustrated by broken jaw
Metal plates in mouth during college career couldn't stop Nats pitcher
WASHINGTON -- Pat Bloom has never heard a stadium get so quiet.
It was March 2007, and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point baseball team was in Port Charlotte, Fla., for its own version of Spring Training, a preseason stretch of 10 games in five days, far from the chill of the Wisconsin winter.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, there were 75 people in the stands, including a handful of scouts. They were there to see a small-town pitching prospect named Jordan Zimmermann, a right-hander who was expected to throw one or two innings of relief.
Zimmermann was scrawnier then, because he had recently lost between 20-25 pounds. As he walked to the mound in the bottom of the fifth inning, the metal bleachers at Charlotte Sports Park went quiet. Both dugouts, too. Bloom only remembers hearing the occasional snap of Zimmermann's warm-up pitches hitting the catcher's mitt.
"Everyone was obviously excited to see him, because they knew the hype that had built up," Bloom, the head coach at UW-Stevens Point, said. "But they were also very impressed that he was throwing with his jaw wired shut."
Zimmermann struggled Sunday in his first start back after missing the All-Star game with lingering stiffness in his neck, but he will try to regain that first-half success when he faces the Mets on Friday. Even with that stiffness, the 27-year-old was among the first-half National League leaders in wins (12), ERA (2.58) and WHIP (0.97).
Zimmermann's professional career has largely been defined by his toughness on the mound and an ability -- and tendency -- to attack the strike zone. According to Fangraphs.com, Zimmermann throws more strikes (49.4 percent) than all but three NL pitchers.
But to completely understand Zimmermann's toughness, you have to start in Stevens Point, Wis., where a line drive hit the right-hander on the right side of the face in 2007, breaking his jaw in two places. Doctors surgically repaired the jaw with two plates and 11 screws. They realigned the jawbones with a mangled mess of rubber bands.
Zimmermann returned to the mound in Port Charlotte less than a month later, his jaw still sealed in place.
"We knew he was a bulldog," Nationals Midwest scouting supervisor Steve Arnieri said. "Him coming back from that confirmed what we had already heard: how good of a kid he was and what kind of a competitor he was."
'I knew it was broke'
Stevens Point is smack in the middle of the Badger State, 30 minutes east of Auburndale, Zimmermann's childhood home. The weather there, as you can imagine, is not ideal for baseball. So Bloom keeps his players sharp during the winter with simulated games at a multipurpose facility on campus.
In one of those simulated games before his junior season, Zimmermann was blowing hitters away. His fastball touched 93 mph, according to Bloom, and he struck out five of the first six batters that he faced. Then the team's backup catcher, Garett Bloom, stepped into the batter's box.
Zimmermann threw two strikes before Bloom, the head coach's younger brother, stuck his bat out and sent a line drive screaming back at the mound. Zimmermann had an L-screen in front of him, but he didn't duck. He also didn't position his mitt in front of his face in time.
"He just didn't quite react the way he normally would," Pat Bloom said. "I think he thought he was going to catch it, and then he had the L-screen there, so it was kind of a tougher read for him."
"I put my mitt up and it went underneath my glove or above it," Zimmermann said. "I don't even remember where it went."
The ball caught Zimmermann on the right side of his face. He crumpled to the ground but never lost consciousness, opening his eyes to see a small puddle of blood. Then he moved his tongue. It felt like his jaw had peeled into his mouth.
"I knew it was broke right then and there," Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann was given an ice pack as he walked to a car. His girlfriend and now-wife, Mandy, was getting ready for softball practice nearby and joined him. Bloom drove them to the hospital, where Zimmermann's mother, Kris, met them.
Doctors looked at Zimmermann's mouth and asked him to bite down on a tongue depressor. Zimmermann glared back.
"I'm not biting down on this," he mumbled. "I know my jaw's broke. You can take my word on it."
Mashed potatoes and Shamrock shakes
Zimmermann's mouth was never actually wired shut, though he said that he was given that option. Doctors fixed the jaw with two metal plates, one at each end of the bone, and glued brackets onto Zimmermann's teeth like braces. Rubber bands strung from tooth to tooth, keeping the jaw in place.
For the next month, Zimmermann's words turned to mumbles, and he couldn't eat solid food. He said that he lost between 20 and 25 pounds. Shamrock milkshakes from McDonald's served as his main source of nutrition.
"I was crushing those," Zimmermann said, grinning.
The team had a preseason banquet for players and their families that year, a formal affair with suits and plenty of good food. But the only dish that Zimmermann could enjoy was a big bowl of mashed potatoes.
"Some guys would be bummed out, maybe not even want to go to that, but he didn't care," Bloom said. "He had fun with it, and I think he really handled the whole process very well."
Zimmermann wanted to return to the team as soon as possible, and he was cleared to pitch during the Pointers' preseason trip to Florida. The doctors removed Zimmermann's rubber bands and told Bloom that while the jaw hadn't completely healed, it couldn't get worse, either. Sudden facial expressions or movements could possibly displace the bones, but that was the least of Bloom's worries.
"We felt fine being able to put him out there," Bloom said. "Because we knew that whenever he went on the mound, he never moved a muscle in his face. He was always so stoic."
'He was the total package'
Jeff Zona has been a scout for 23 years, first with the Red Sox and now with the Nationals. He was brought to Washington as a national crosschecker in 2006 when Mike Rizzo, another former Red Sox scout, became the Nationals' assistant general manager.
Zona was in Clearwater, Fla., in March 2007 when he got a call from Arnieri, who oversees the team's scouting operations in the Midwest. Arnieri wanted Zona to drive two hours from Clearwater to Port Charlotte to watch Zimmermann, whom he had been monitoring for nearly a year. Zona knew that he had to see this one, and the alternative was a trip to the middle of Wisconsin.
"Port Charlotte?" Zona responded. "Hey, I'll take that."
Zimmermann entered the game with a one-run lead and gave up a solo home run to the first batter he faced. But true to form, he didn't flinch. He struck out the side and pitched three more innings before leaving the game.
"The toughness -- knowing that he'd just had his jaw wired shut, knowing that he was just coming back from it -- you could just see the bulldog in him," Zona said. "He was 94-95 mph with a power curveball, and you were just like, 'Wow.'"
At a pre-Draft meeting a few months later, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden asked Arnieri to pick one player that the team absolutely couldn't pass up -- one guy on whom he would bet the house. Arnieri had a list of 55 prospects from the Midwest in front of him, and Zimmermann barely cracked the top five. But the scout just had a gut feeling about him.
"He was the total package," Arnieri said. "And without hesitation, I said, 'Him, give me him.'"
With rave reviews from Arnieri, Zona and Rizzo, the Nationals drafted Zimmermann in the second round of the 2007 Draft with the 67th overall selection.
"They may not admit it," Bloom said. "But I think some scouts and Major League teams look back at the Jordan Zimmermann guy from a small Division III school and use him now as an example of why you should take a second look, even if it might seem like the deck is stacked against him."
In the rearview mirror
Zimmermann's return from a broken jaw confirmed what the Nationals already knew, but it wasn't why they drafted him.
In his junior year at UW-Stevens Point, Zimmermann went 10-0 with a 2.08 ERA. When he didn't pitch, he was the team's designated hitter, leading the Pointers with a .385 batting average and seven home runs.
"He was an athletic pitcher, kind of the same guy he is now," Rizzo said. "He just attacked hitters and attacked the game in general. He was a good hitter, he ran the bases well, he was sliding all over the place."
Zimmerman also had the mental toughness that Arnieri looks for in Major League players.
"I always tell people I liked his makeup even better than his stuff," Arnieri said. "He's just such a determined kid. Guys will tell you what their personalities are on the field, and how he pitches to type. He's a strong, silent type. He goes about his business, he's laser-focused, and he's always been that way."
Arnieri still remembers the last time that he saw Zimmermann pitch for UW-Stevens Point. It was in a Division III World Series regional game, and the Pointers had to win to advance. Zimmermann struck out 10 batters and allowed just two hits over 6 1/3 innings of work. He also went 3-for-5 with an RBI at the plate and was named regional MVP for the second straight year.
Arnieri spoke briefly with Zimmermann after the game, but the right-hander seemed flustered, like he had somewhere else to be. Arnieri ended the conversation and watched Zimmermann jog to a nearby football field and start running sprints.
"I didn't mean to blow him off," Zimmermann said sheepishly. "But I guess I did."
As Arnieri pulled out of the parking lot, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw Zimmermann. Less than an hour after his season-saving performance, the man with the broken jaw sprinted alone from goalpost to goalpost.
"That's just the kind of kid he is. He's doing it on his own, so he's dedicated, he's self-motivated, determined, and that made a really lasting impression on me," Arnieri said. "That's my kind of guy."