Manager Davey Johnson has an early season philosophy of not riding his starters too long in games. His reasoning includes wanting the rotation to be fresher as the season goes on, the ability to get the starters ramped up as each start passes and protection for the bullpen after some shaky outings to start the season.
But if the starter can pitch well enough into the late innings and keep his pitch count down, Johnson will go with you, especially if in the past the starter has shown the ability to pitch into the seventh, eighth and even ninth frames.
Left-hander Gio Gonzalez showed that ability last year to go the distance. Two of his three career complete games came last season for the Nationals.
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann had a streak last season of 21 consecutive games of going at least six innings, and nine starts into at least the seventh inning.
Right-hander Dan Haren had 16 complete games in his career before he arrived in D.C. He also had five total complete games in his last two seasons.
On Thursday, Gonzalez tossed eight innings, and was so good that Johnson let him complete eight even with 112 innings.
On Friday, Johnson watched as Zimmermann put on a show. Spinning nine innings, allowing just one base hit by Xavier Paul in the third innings, Zimmermann walked one, struck out four, all on just 91 pitches.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki said the pitching staff notices that Johnson will let his guys fight. Johnson has their best long term interest in mind as well, and the combination of a roughed up bullpen might also have contributed to having Gonzalez and Zimmermann go extra late in the week. But when Johnson gave the ball to Zimmermann to start the ninth on Friday, Suzuki said there was a rush of adrenalin as they headed out to their spots.
"That says a lot for the pitcher's confidence," Suzuki said. "Knowing your manager has your back with the opportunity to bring in your closer in (Rafael) Soriano, who is one of the best in the game, to leave your starter in and throw a complete game shutout. I think for the pitching staff, they really respect that. I think that is why Johnson has so much respect from us because he has your back, he lets you go and work it out."
Even in Saturday's 6-3 win for Haren, six innings must have felt like eight after what he went through his last few outings. Johnson knows Haren can go the distance as well, he just wants to get him going at a measured pace. After all, it is still April.