The first thing Davey Johnson said as he approached the podium for his postgame press conference after tonight's 5-1 win over the Rockies wasn't related to Jordan Zimmermann's stellar eight-inning outing or Adam LaRoche's three-hit, two-RBI night.
It related to Anthony Rendon's eighth-inning error that put the potential game-tying run in the on-deck circle and brought Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez up with two runners on and one out.
"My second baseman gave me a heart attack," Johnson said with a laugh.
Those are the type of things that managers focus on. The Nationals had a nice offensive ballgame and got outstanding starting pitching, but the first thing Johnson mentioned after the game was a late error that made things more interesting than they should have been.
Rendon had an easy play at first base to get the second out of the inning, but tried to cut down the lead runner at second. The ball got away from Ian Desmond and forced Zimmermann to really bear down and battle against the heart of the Rockies' order.
He did the job, of course, striking out Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer to get out of the eighth and keep the Nationals' 5-1 lead intact. The error, however, was a learning experience for Rendon, who is still learning the ins and outs of playing second base at this level.
"We had that come up in spring and I mentioned it to him," Johnson said. "Get the out, we got a lead, we get the out. But we didn't do that.
"But anyway, I didn't want to lean on Zim too hard. Didn't want to get (Tyler) Clippard up again. But I'm just going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at 'em to win that one for Zim. But he took the bull by the horns, throwing 95 at the end. Outstanding effort."
Outstanding effort, indeed. Zimmermann went eight innings, allowing just six hits and an unearned run. He walked one, struck out nine and threw a whopping 85 of his 112 pitches for strikes.
According to Elias, this was just the third time in Nationals history that a starting pitcher has thrown at least 85 strikes in a game. Livan Hernandez (97) and Esteban Loaiza (87) were the others.
Zimmermann's biggest outs were his last two, when he got Gonzalez and Cuddyer swinging to strand the two runners. His strikeout of Cuddyer was on a 95 mph fastball under the hands, but the one to Gonzalez came on a changeup, a pitch that he only has thrown 3.9 percent of the time this season but has much more confidence in than he did in past years.
"He's got some great outs with it," Johnson said. "It's a great pitch. He's got such an explosive fastball, and when (he) throws it up to them in a tight situation, it really fools 'em. But what a game he pitched, and we needed it. An 11-inning game last night and all my guys, I've been using them a lot late in close ballgames, just to stay close and give our offense a chance to win it. That was a godsend."
Zimmermann picks up his 10th win of the season and sees his ERA drop to 2.26. He also bounces back from a rough outing his last time out, when he blew a four-run lead and allowed six runs in a loss to the Indians.
"He had some good hitters up there today and he made some awfully good pitches with a heck of a lot on it," Johnson said. "He did redeem himself."
The Nats got the job done offensively, with Desmond smacking his second homer in as many nights, LaRoche smoking a two-run triple and Denard Span, Rendon and Steve Lombardozzi all adding two hits. The Nats missed a couple chances, but they capitalized on enough and rode Zimmermann to their second straight win.
"The middle of my lineup had a chance to do some damage, and they didn't, but we'll get it going," Johnson said.