Lost in the 11-2 beating the Nationals took from the Atlanta Braves yesterday was the fact that through six innings, the game was actually close. It wasn't until Jordan Zimmermann left the game that the Braves poured it on, battering the Nationals' bullpen for eight runs between the seventh and eighth innings.
Zimmermann, though, turned out to be one of the few bright spots for the Nationals yesterday. He allowed three runs in six innings, though only two of them were earned and another could have been prevented if Danny Espinosa had been able to turn a first-inning double play.
The right-hander worked somewhat against type, throwing a respectable 84 pitches in six innings and getting 35 of his 54 strikes through contact. Zimmermann is the one pitcher on the Nationals' staff with strikeout stuff, but he's also had a tendency to run his pitch count up in the past. On Sunday, he put himself in position to work into the seventh inning, though manager Jim Riggleman chose to play it safe in Zimmermann's first start of the year.
Because Zimmermann is in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals plan to cap his innings between 150 and 160 this year, it's possible they'll take him out early at times this year. And Sunday, Zimmermann came out in part because even when the Nationals were down 3-1, the game didn't feel worth spending an extra inning on him.
"He kind of found it there. He was good," Riggleman said. "He could have gone back out there a little longer, but we're trying to really look after him. Six innings was enough for him today, and we had to put it on some other people. The combination of where the ball was bouncing around and going all over the place, it just wasn't going to happen."
Essentially, Riggleman took Zimmermann out in part because even when the Nationals were down 3-1, Riggleman felt like he had to let his other pitchers absorb some of the wounds. The way they played defense behind Zimmermann, and the meager offense they generated against Tim Hudson, had the manager believing they weren't coming back no matter who was on the mound.
"We're in the middle of the game, it's a two-run deficit and it's hard to explain," Riggleman said. "It had the feel of a five- or six-run deficit when it was a two-run deficit because we're just not playing good baseball."
But it's worth noting that the Braves blew the game open right after Zimmermann came out.
The right-hander said he felt strong enough to pitch another inning, though the seventh seemed like a natural transition point for Todd Coffey with the bottom of the Braves' order coming up.
Riggleman wouldn't have had to pinch hit for the pitcher until the eighth inning, but the Nationals hadn't done much to suggest they were on the verge of a rally even when they were down 3-1. Their bullpen had pitched well the first two games of the season, but the relievers that pitched when the game got out of hand - Coffey, Doug Slaten, Brian Broderick and Chad Gaudin - are the ones you're more likely to see in a lost cause than a tight game. Riggleman had Slaten and Gaudin warming up multiple times, calling for them at several points when the game felt like it was going to get out of hand.
So Zimmermann came out in part because to Riggleman, the game didn't feel worth the risk of another inning from his young starter. And the way the bullpen pitched, that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"I felt good," Zimmermann said. "We wanted to hand it over to the bullpen. The bullpen did a great job last year. They had a little stumble in the road today, and they'll be ready down in Florida."