After solid 2011 season, righty set to break out

Jordan Zimmermann thrives in the shadows.

Some pitchers would envy the attention levied on Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, but Zimmermann is more than happy to let his teammate deal with it. It suits the 25-year-old Wisconsin native, who is content to simply produce outside the limelight. But if he improves on a stellar 2011 season, Zimmermann may not be able to hide much longer.

He is the lone remaining member of the starting rotation that began last season for Washington. Strasburg was still in Viera, Fla., recovering from Tommy John surgery. John Lannan is now at Triple-A Syracuse. Livan Hernandez was allowed to leave via free agency. Jason Marquis was dealt at the trade deadline last July. And Tom Gorzelanny is a member of the team's bullpen.

In their place are Gio Gonzalez, a 2011 American League All-Star, Strasburg, now recovered from surgery and ready for a long season, Edwin Jackson, a free agent signing who helped St. Louis win a World Series title, and Ross Detwiler, a former first-round pick now ready for his first true shot in the rotation.

It's easy to see how Zimmermann can avoid the glare in that group. But if he builds on last season, he has a legitimate chance to become a National League All-Star. That process begins on Sunday afternoon in Chicago when Zimmermann starts the Nats' third game of the season.

"Last year what I saw, [Zimmermann] had low pitch counts all the way through because he had such great command of the strike zone," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "We want him to pitch more on the corners, not give in."

Zimmermann had a 3.18 ERA in 2011. Only 20 pitchers in all of baseball were better. His walks and hits allowed per inning was 1.15. Only 19 pitchers topped that mark. Zimmermann isn't an elite strikeout pitcher with 6.92 per nine innings. But he's good enough in that area to keep hitters honest and is working on a change-up to keep them off balance even more.

Only 39.4 percent of balls put in play against Zimmermann were on the ground last year. That's a low total. But despite being a fly-ball pitcher, Zimmermann only allowed 12 home runs in 1611?3 innings in 2011. Those two stats usually don't go well together.

But some big league pitchers can do it: NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (43.2 percent), Matt Cain (41.7 percent) and Chris Carpenter (46.6 percent) all gave up 0.61 homers per nine innings or fewer even though they are predominately fly-ball pitchers. That's a top-10 mark in that category, and all three are considered among the best pitchers in the sport.

Zimmermann was just outside that group with 0.67 homers. But if he can limit those home runs -- he gave up 10 in 90 innings as a rookie in 2009 and several times had late homers ruin otherwise stellar outings last season -- he'll be right there with them in 2012.

Injured in the summer of 2009, Zimmermann underwent Tommy John surgery in August of that year before returning for seven starts at the end of 2010. He was then on a strict innings limit last season. That's behind him now, the frustration of being shut down with a month left in the season a receding, if bitter, memory. The hope is Zimmermann can join Gonzalez and Jackson as a 200-inning pitcher and set the stage for Strasburg to do the same next season -- pitchers feeding off each other in one of the game's best rotations.

"There is a little bit of competitiveness within the rotation. I think that's going to work to our advantage because we're going to go out there and try to one-up each other," Strasburg said. "At the same time, I think everybody knows we're in it together, and it doesn't really matter if you're considered No. 1 or No. ?5. Everybody knows they have the ability to pitch and can beat any team on any given day."