WASHINGTON -- Jordan Zimmermann's first full season in the big leagues since undergoing Tommy John surgery was always supposed to be about getting him better -- keeping him healthy, limiting his innings and building his experience.
And the Nationals never questioned it, but they likely wanted to see the 25-year-old look the part of the top-of-a-rotation starter they always projected him to be.
Zimmermann's start Tuesday at Nationals Park gave Washington everything it asked for. The right-hander is healthy -- as strong in his 25th start as he was in his first. He went 6 1/3, giving him one more start until he surpasses his 160-innings limit. He looked like a frontline starter with his 95-mph fastball and putaway slider. And he gained another valuable lesson in a 2-0 loss to the D-backs -- he has to be able to finish a game.
"It's happened a couple times this year, where there's always one pitch at the end of a game that is a double or home run, and they get a couple of runs," Zimmermann said. "In a close ballgame, you can't give those hits up."
Pitching coach Steve McCatty paid a visit to the mound after Chris Young walked with one out in the seventh to both discuss Zimmermann's plan and give Tyler Clippard extra time to warm up in the bullpen. They wanted to pitch Sean Burroughs down and away.
"It was right down the middle," said catcher Wilson Ramos.
Burroughs turned on Zimmermann's first-pitch fastball, sending it into the right-field seats for his first homer since April 30, 2005.
"I was basically looking dead red fastball, try to get it out front, get my foot down early and try to stay up the middle," Burroughs said. "I wasn't trying to hit a home run, I never, obviously, ever do."
Arizona starter Ian Kennedy followed Burroughs into the batter's box, and despite Clippard warming in the bullpen, he was Zimmermann's.
But Kennedy jumped on another first pitch, sending a double into the right-field corner to end Zimmermann's night after 109 pitches.
The late innings again spelled trouble for Zimmermann, whose last loss came after 6 2/3 dominant innings on Aug. 11 at Wrigley Field. Then, he allowed a single and back-to-back homers. In control for 98 pitches, Nos. 99 to 107 finished his night.
"I don't know if it's the magic number, but I don't think it's the magic number around 100 pitches," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "I want to give him every opportunity to win the ballgame. I figured, give him one more inning and give us a chance to score."
Kennedy made that difficult, pitching seven tough innings and striking out eight.
Washington loaded the bases against him in the fifth, but Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse struck out to end the threat. The Nats had runners on the corners in the fourth, but that threat ended with a Laynce Nix strikeout. And they put two men on in the sixth before Ramos grounded into a 5-4-3 double play.
It was another example of a lack of run support for Zimmermann, but that is a trend out of his control, and one he keeps out of his mind. With one more start remaining, he can only focus on his own issues, and that is finishing games.
"It's extremely important for your top-end guys to get through those innings," McCatty said. "Guys have to learn how to get through those situations, and it was his turn today."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.