The Nats bullpen then found some new tricks to seal the deal in a 3-2 victory and complete a sweep of the Braves.
Zimmerman’s two-run homer off R.A. Dickey gave the Nationals the lead for good, Strasburg churned out seven more quality innings and then the relief trio of Oliver Pérez, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley held that one-run lead in the eighth and ninth.
Turning to the reconfigured back end of his bullpen, manager Dusty Baker at last found a combination that worked. Pérez, making his first appearance in 12 days, retired the fearsome Freddie Freeman on two pitches. Glover finished off the eighth by retiring Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis.
Kelley, the new primary closer following Blake Treinen’s removal from the role, then escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the bottom of the ninth to record his second save of the series and send the Nationals off to New York riding a four-game winning streak.
Now 10-5 to begin the season, the Nats continue this daunting, 10-game road trip with a weekend tilt against the rival Mets at Citi Field.
The Nationals struggled most of the night to elevate any of Dickey’s knuckleballs, pounding 11 pitches into the ground for outs through 5 2/3 innings. But then the guy who has been finding a way to elevate pitches throughout the season’s first three weeks did it again, in a huge spot.
After Bryce Harper drew a two-out walk, Zimmerman stepped to the plate and crushed a 1-0 knuckleball to center field, clearing the fence. It was his second homer in 24 hours, his fifth of the young season (the first time he has hit five homers in April since he was an All-Star in 2009) and continued his remarkable start to the 2017 campaign.
After rounding the bases on that blast, Zimmerman (who also doubled in his first at-bat and scored the Nationals’ first run) was hitting .396 with five homers, 13 RBIs, a .792 slugging percentage and 1.231 OPS through 15 games.
Strasburg was sharp from the outset, striking out three batters in the bottom of the first. And he had his way with the top of the Atlanta lineup, even doing the impossible and retiring Freeman three times. The bottom of the order, though, did its damage against the right-hander.
The Braves scored a run in the second on hits by Markakis and Brandon Phillips and Dickey’s RBI groundout. They scored another run in the fourth on Phillips’ double, Jace Peterson’s infield single (on a play second baseman Grant Green could have made) and Kurt Suzuki’s sacrifice fly.
Strasburg finished strong, allowing just one hit in his final three innings. He struck out at least 10 batters for the 30th time in his career.
He also got some big-time help from his defense, which turned in four highlight-reel plays. Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor and Harper all made difficult catches of line drives in the outfield, and Anthony Rendon snagged a bullet down the third base line and fired to first to quash a seventh-inning rally.