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Jordan Zimmermann faces a stiff challenge tonight against Cliff Lee and the Phillies.
It's one thing to beat Joe Blanton. It's another to beat Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.
The Nationals nearly did it to Halladay last night, putting the tying run on second base with one out in the ninth, only to watch as the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner struck out Matt Stairs and Ivan Rodriguez in succession to end the game and seal a 3-2 Phillies victory.
Tonight, they'll have a chance to do it Lee, the pinpoint-throwing lefty who has made only two career starts against the franchise that employed him many moons ago (but, of course, won both starts).
Whether the Nats can put a dent in Lee's usually indestructible armor remains to be seen. Certainly, you can't expect an offensive explosion from a lineup lacking Ryan Zimmerman and featuring several struggling regulars.
Which puts the onus on Jordan Zimmermann, the man taking the ball for the Nationals for his third start of the season. Pitchers always insist they aren't facing the opposing starter, only the opposing lineup. That may technically be true, but sometimes when going up against an elite arm like Lee, you simply need your own starter to turn in an equally (if not more) impressive performance.
Rarely in their brief history in the District have the Nationals been able to send a pitcher to the mound capable of going toe-to-toe with one of the game's best. They've faced plenty of elite starters over the last six-plus seasons, from Lee and Halladay to Tim Hudson and Josh Johnson and Chris Carpenter and Tim Lincecum and Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy and Ubaldo Jimenez and Johan Santana and more. Unless it coincided with one of Stephen Strasburg's 12 outings last summer, they've never been able to counter those aces with one of their own.
Not to suggest Zimmermann is in the same class as Lee or any of those other guys in their prime. But the young right-hander certainly has the potential to stand alongside them, and in two starts so far this year has begun to establish himself as a front-line hurler the Nationals can count on.
There would certainly be no shame in losing to Cliff Lee tonight, just as there was no shame in losing to Roy Halladay last night.
But if the Nats truly are going to take that next step forward as a franchise and "close the gap" between themselves and their best division rival, they're going to have to be able to count on guys like Zimmermann equaling (or better yet, surpassing) the likes of Cliff Lee.