There's a three-way tie atop the National League East tonight, and the Nationals (32-29) can thank right-hander Jordan Zimmermann for delivering a dominating effort Sunday to help them into that trio with the Braves (32-29) and Marlins (33-30).
Zimmermann struck out a career-high 12 in a 6-0 whitewashing of the Padres that provided the Nats with their third consecutive series victory. It was Zimmermann's third career shutout and sixth career complete game, a worthy springboard into a four-game series with the NL West-leading Giants that begins Monday night.
"I was throwing strikes and guys got me some runs early, so my mentality changed to pour strikes in the zone and fill it up," said Zimmermann, who faced only two over the minimum and improved to 5-2. "Big ballpark, just let them hit the ball. I had a lot of strikeouts today, which means my fastball was pretty good. I was able to locate it pretty good. For the most part I was throwing strikes and letting the guys behind me play defense."
Before he even took the mound, Zimmermann had a 1-0 lead, courtesy of a run-scoring Kevin Frandsen groundout in the first. Ian Desmond's two-run homer made it 3-0 in the second and the Nats knocked out Padres starter Eric Stults in a three-run third.
"Got some runs for him early, allowed him to settle in," said Nationals manager Matt Williams. "From the first pitch, he was in the strike zone again."
That was all the cushion Zimmermann needed. He retired the first 16 Padres in order before Alexi Amarista's soft liner to right gave San Diego its first baserunner in the sixth. The only other Padres hit came in the seventh, when Seth Smith led off with a triple to center. But a grounder to third, a pop to third and a liner to center stranded Smith and ended the Padres' only legitimate threat to get on the scoreboard.
Zimmermann said he wasn't think about his flirtation with perfection or a no-hitter.
"No, not really," he said. "I mean, it's really tough to do. My career numbers say I give up a hit and inning, so I figured they're going to get a hit sometime. It was fun putting up zeroes, but the main thing was go deep and win the ballgame."
Considering the fact that he felt like he had a terrible pregame bullpen session, the result was especially impressive. But the Padres kept chasing high pitches and his slider was on, so Zimmermann stayed with his bread and butter and stuck to the game plan.
Zimmermann didn't issue a walk in his 114-pitch outing, and his gem gave the Nationals three 11-strikeout, zero-walk games in their past five. Tanner Roark did it Friday night at Petco Park, and Stephen Strasburg turned the trick Wednesday against Philadelphia. In their past five games, Washington starting pitchers have thrown 37 innings, yielded 20 hits, allowed only six earned runs, walked none and fanned 40.
The impressive streak has created quite the competition among the members of the Nationals rotation. And Zimmermann, who struggled through May with a 1-1 record and 5.06 ERA over five starts, is happy to put a poor month behind him.
"The whole month of May, I was the guy," Zimmermann said. "Everyone was having good starts and I was pitching terrible. You want to pitch like everyone else and be part of the group. We've got a good thing going right now."
Williams said locating his fastball and consistently getting ahead of hitters was the key for the right-hander.
"It allows him to expand the plate, too," Williams said. "It's slider and curveball and he threw some changeups to lefties today. It's the same with anybody. Strike one is important and he was able to do that today. ... He was throwing it exactly where he wanted to throw it with some good velocity. Not his highest velocity of the year, but great control and command of all his pitches."