“I felt all right. It’s not necessarily the best I’ve felt but it’s all mental.”
This coming from a durable pitcher who has a dazzling, powerful arm and a 95 mph fastball. This coming from a pitcher who claims he hasn’t iced his arm following a start since 2003. This, coming from a right-hander who has a 149-pitch no-hitter to his name.
If that’s Edwin Jackson on a self-proclaimed not-my-best day, then the first-place Nationals should stand to benefit immensely from the one-year, $11 million contract they signed him to before the season. His gem on Saturday was the latest impressive performance from a rotation whose starters have allowed only two runs over the past 35 innings.
Jackson mowed through the Reds — from the second inning to the seventh, he retired 16 straight batters. He needed only 66 pitches to get through seven innings. He struck out six of the last eight batters he faced. He saved a bullpen that had been stretched thin in a 13-inning game the night before.
And, better yet, he averaged just more than three pitches per at-bat.
“He was commanding all his pitches,” catcher Jesus Flores said.
“It was fun to catch him.”
Through the first two innings, Jackson and Flores were just warming up, as Flores put it.
The Reds opened the scoring in the second inning when Drew Stubbs singled home Miguel Cairo, who had reached on a one-out double off Jackson. The Nationals (7-2) tied the score the same inning when Flores, a bright spot in his limited action, singled to right field to score Jayson Werth.
The Nationals took the lead for good in the third inning. Danny Espinosa drew his team-leading eighth walk and Zimmerman followed with a single to the left side. Then, on the third pitch of the at-bat, Adam LaRoche lined a two-run double to right field.
After his only blemish, Jackson cruised. His fastball was electric; even late in the eighth inning, he was hitting 95 mph. His slider and curveball froze batters.
“They were aggressive and they were swinging,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of strikeouts until later on in the game but I’m fine with that, as long as I’m getting outs and just going out there with the approach to pitch to contact.”
Jackson, 28, who is generously listed at 6 feet 3, has had a lot of tags in his career: a nomad (seven teams in 10 seasons), an occasionally wild thrower whose pitch counts can get high. Recently, he was considered a pitcher who needed just a little bit of tweaking.
Soon after Jackson signed with Washington, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo discussed slightly adjusting the pitcher’s windup. Over spring training, Nationals coaches worked with him because they felt he was slightly less effective from the windup than from the stretch. He was slightly showing the ball to batters.
But for all the attention that was paid to mechanics, the one label that Nationals Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty felt was appropriate following Saturday’s performance was “athlete.”
“All I did was talk about his hands, the placement of his hands and things like that,” McCatty said. “So he worked on that. And I said, ‘Go on out there and be athletic.’ Because he was thinking about mechanics and all this stuff.
“I said: ‘Quit worrying about it. You’ve got a great arm, a great slider. Trust yourself and be athletic. Go after guys and throw the ball over the plate.’ ”
Added Johnson of Jackson’s performance, “I don’t know how you can get better than that.”
After Jackson issued a walk to start the eighth inning and reliever Tyler Clippard started warming in the bullpen, Jackson looked more resolved. He struck out the next three batters, two on a slider and one on a fastball.
When he came out to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, the crowd cheered, happy Jackson would get the chance to finish what he had started. He went on to earn the fifth complete game of his career.
“You just get caught up in the game and you just continue to try to stay on a groove,” he said. “Everything else becomes a blur. You just want to throw to the glove and get outs.”