Righthanded pitcher Ryan Zimmerman struck out 203 batters in 43 appearances in a Tommie uniform from 2015-18. Eight times over the last two seasons, he fanned nine or more in one game.
In 2016 and 2017 summer stints in the Northwoods League with the Eau Claire Express, Zimmerman struck out 90 in 19 games.
Now this June and July, he's struck out 26 more in seven appearances as a pro rookie with the minor-league St. Paul Saints -- including the first batter he faced as a pro.
However long his post-college pitching experience lasts, a strikeout Zimmerman recorded Monday night in downtown St. Paul against the Cleburne (Texas) Railroaders likely will rank at or near the top of his career.
An Eden Prairie native and recent St. Thomas graduate, Zimmerman was making his sixth Saints start. Penciled into the cleanup spot in the Cleburne batting order was 53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro, a 20-year major-league player from 1986-2005 with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles.
Palmeiero signed with Cleburne in May -- as a package deal with his son Patrick -- to see if he could still play at a pro level. He's defying Father Time, batting .293 in 26 games thus far as a designated hitter.
The Cuban-born and Miami-raised Palmeiero is one of just six major leagues to record 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. A four-time All-Star and three-time Golden Glove recipient, Palmeiro played in 2,831 major-league games -- the most by a guy who never appeared in a World Series. As a member of the elite 500/3,000 batting club, Palmeiro likely would already be a Hall of Fame inductee in Cooperstown if not for a steroid cloud that hangs over him. He was suspended 10 games in 2005 for a positive test, although he's repeatedly denied ever knowingly taken a banned substance. Voters have not given him the benefit of the doubt, though, and he's fallen off the Hall of Fame ballot due to low support.
On Monday night, with 7,000 folks in the stands and the mercury still at 86 degrees at CHS Field, the veteran slugger drew a first-inning walk on a full count against the 22-year-old Zimmerman. But youth ruled in the rematch in the third inning, as Zimmerman got a swinging K of Palmeiro on another full count. That ended the inning and stranded a runner at second.
Fighting control issues, Zimmerman walked Palmeiro again in the fifth inning. With their lead cut to 7-3, the Saints called on a relief pitcher and went on to post an 8-5 victory.
"It was pretty cool," Zimmerman told the Star Tribune's Jim Souhan. "I'm too young to remember him playing in the big leagues, but everybody knows who he is and what he's done."
Zimmerman had already pitched in two games against a MLB alum -- outfielder Reggie Abercrombie of Winnipeg. Abercrombie, who turns 37 this week, played three major-league seasons with the Marlins and Astros from 2006-2008. He's competed against the Saints in the American Association for most of the last decade, and currently ranks in the league's top five in hits and batting average.
Zimmerman is 1-1 with a 4.69 ERA and 26 strikeouts with 16 walks in 31 innings with the Saints. Not bad for a guy who didn't know if a pro opportunity would come his way. He was prepared with Plan B to launch a real-world career with his Financial Management degree.
"I feel so lucky to be here (with the Saints) every day," he told the Pioneer Press in a recent interview. "For now, I'm just enjoying the experience and trying to have as much fun as possible." He explained that if a promotion to pitch with a major-league organization ever presents itself, "I'll cherish that opportunity as well."
In 43 career pitching appearances with the Toms, Zimmerman had a 3.04 ERA and a 16-8 record, with one save, eight complete games, 203 strikeouts and 74 walks in 181 innings. This spring, he had a one-hit road shutout at Concordia-Moorhead, and fanned 13 in six innings in a defeat of Hamline. He had a complete-game 7-2 win at No. 2-ranked UW-Whitewater during the 2017 NCAA playoffs.
Helping Zimmerman's transition is the presence on the Saints roster of Jake Smith, his four-year teammate with the Tommies. A utility player in the infield and outfield, Smith has played in 14 games and has 12 hits and one walk.
Brush with Greatness, the Prequel
Zimmerman isn't the only Tommie Baseball standout to have a brush with greatness on the pro diamonds. Former standout player and two-time NCAA champion coach Dennis Denning had a similar "celebrity" experience in 1966 as a member of the minor-league Miami Marlins. Late in the season as they were chasing a playoff spot, the Marlins signed legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, then age 60, to a contract.
"We were making about $400 a month and they signed him for $500 to pitch one game, so most of us were skeptical," Denning recalled. "He was about 6-foot-4 and had these real long arms. He was very agile. He only threw about 78 miles an hour by then, but his control of his pitches was unbelievable. He could put it anywhere he wanted to."
Paige pitched well and helped the Marlins post a 4-3 victory -- a decision secured on a walk-off double in the ninth inning off the bat of Dennis Denning.
Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is starting his 25th season at St. Thomas and 31st overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports. If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org