by David Elfin

It is Jordan Zimmermann’s blessing and his curse to always be the other guy.

Zimmermann is not Zimmerman, as in former All Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the Nationals during the four-plus seasons that preceded right hander Stephen Strasburg’s June 2010 debut.

Zimmermann is also not 2009 No. 1 overall draft choice Strasburg nor 2011-12 All Star left hander Gio Gonzalez, at least in terms of public perception of Washington’s starting pitchers.

All of that might be a curse to some athletes, but not to the quiet Zimmermann, who turns 27 next Thursday. To him, it’s basically a blessing that so much attention showered on presumed ace Strasburg and ace I-A Gonzalez while he’s left in near-anonymity.

However, that might be starting to change. The Nats have started running ads with Zimmermann’s photo. And as we near the quarter pole of the season – which is more than halfway to the selection of the All Star teams – the 6-foot-2, 220-pound right hander from tiny Auburndale, Wis. has been one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers with a 7-1 record and a 1.69 earned.

Not that Zimmermann’s excellence is anything new. While Strasburg’s every pitch was watched for signs of recovery or future breakdown last year in the wake of his return from Tommy John surgery in September 2011 and Gonzalez electrified Nats-watchers with his stuff and outgoing personality during his 2012 Washington debut season, Zimmermann was just as effective as were his All Star rotation mates.

The numbers:

  • Gonzalez 21-8, 2.89, 1.129 walks and hits per innings pitched
  • Strasburg 15-6, 3.16, 1.155
  • Zimmermann 12-8, 2.94, 1.17

Zimmermann struck out fewer batters than Gonzalez but also walked fewer. While Zimmermann couldn’t complain about a lack of run support last season as was the case during 2011 when he was just 8-11 despite a 3.18 ERA and a 1.147 WHIP, the bullpen did lose four leads that he had established. Otherwise, his 2012 won-loss record would have resembled Strasburg’s.

So far this year while Gonzalez and new No. 4 starter Dan Haren have mostly struggled and No. 5 starter Ross Detwiler and Strasburg – who’s 1-5 and in a worrisome pattern of melting down when something goes wrong such as a teammate’s error — have been inconsistent, Zimmermann has been the bellwether.

The numbers:

  • Zimmermann NL-leading 7-1 record, 1.69 ERA (fifth in the league) .087 WHIP (second)
  • Strasburg 1-5, 3.10, 1.18
  • Gonzalez 3-2, 4.20, 1.20
  • Detwiler 2-4, 2.76, 1.45
  • Haren 4-4, 4.76, 1.35

Since he went 4-7 with a 4.73 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP during his first 23 big-league starts in 2009 and 2010, Zimmermann has learned how to pitch. Over the past two-plus seasons, he’s 27-20 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

Zimmermann has yet to allow as many as 10 hits or four runs this year. He has completed two of his eight starts after not finishing any of the 32 games he began in 2012. In fact, Zimmermann is just one complete game shy of the staff’s total of last season (Gonzalez had two and Edwin Jackson, who beat Washington and Strasburg for Chicago last Saturday, had the other) when the Nats led the majors with 98 victories and won the National League East title.

Last Wednesday in a rain-delayed start against defending American League champion Detroit whose power-paced lineup was averaging 5.47 runs, Zimmermann allowed just one in seven innings while striking out seven batters and walking just one. Of his 101 pitches, 72 were strikes.

“I take pride every time I go out there,” Zimmermann said. “I’m going to pitch to contact and attack guys. Whatever happens is going to happen.”

Or as catcher Kurt Suzuki told The Washington Post, “Here it is. This is my best. If you can hit it, you can hit it. [Jordan is] one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen.”

A fierce competitor with nasty stuff and a bulldog attitude equals a staff ace.

“I don’t think anyone is an ace on this staff,” Zimmerman said. “We’re all equal.”

Beg to differ, Jordan. So far in 2013, you are the ace.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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