When the Washington Nationals limped to the 2010 All-Star break 11 games under .500, Davey Johnson didn't have an inkling he'd be managing the club a year later. He was more focused on relaxation, fishing the creeks near his home in Winter Park, Fla. Jordan Zimmermann was a couple of months away from returning to the Nationals' rotation, in the infancy of his fast-tracked rehabilitation from Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery.
Drew Storen was a rookie last July, and remembers the hushed silence of the clubhouse, the feeling that some of his teammates just wanted to escape the mounting losses, ditch baseball for a few days and try to regroup. Maybe that's why he grasps the significance - or even lack thereof - of what the Nationals accomplished Sunday in a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies that left them at 46-46 as players scattered to enjoy their midsummer hiatus.
"It's like getting your grades at midterm," said Storen, who picked up his 23rd save as the fourth pitcher in a six-hit shutout that snapped a three-game losing streak. "It's all great, but it's kind of a stepping stone to where we want to be. ... It's a good step forward from where we were at the beginning of the season, but we can do better. And we are doing better. We're getting there."
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (6-7) prevailed in a tense dual with Colorado right Jhoulys Chacin (8-7), who retired the first 11 Washington hitters and took a hard-luck loss in which he surrendered a run on four hits over seven innings. Zimmermann flashed a wicked slider that kept the Rockies off balance until he was pulled with one out in the seventh and a runner on first because Johnson didn't want to risk having him lose the game - and because the new skipper is acutely aware of the innings limit placed on Zimmermann in his first full post-surgery season.
The inning before, the Nats had finally broken a scoreless game when Ian Desmond's infield single, Zimmermann's sacrifice bunt and Roger Bernadina's broken-bat RBI single to right produced a run. But when Johnson came to the mound to remove Zimmermann, infielders incredulously gathered around their pitcher wondering what Johnson was doing.
"I'm sure everybody in the stands thought I had a quick hook," Johnson acknowledged. "I probably did."
For the second half, Johnson will carefully monitor ZImmermann's starts and pitch counts to limit the stress on his surgically repaired arm. He'll think big-picture with a conservative bent. But more outings like Sunday's are going to make it tough on Johnson, who's already given up his perception of Zimmermann as a fifth starter whose health must be protected and is trying hard not to think of him as a burgeoning star.
"You couldn't ask for anything more after what he's went through the last year," Johnson said of Zimmermann, who allowed four hits, didn't walk a batter and struck out six. "A lot of guys, when I came out there, asked me - all of them - 'Why did you take him out?' or something like that. They didn't ask it in that form. I said, 'He's only got a few innings the rest of this year and a young pitcher pitches this great, and I'm not giving him a chance to even come close to losing it. I said I've got a strong bullpen and I've got all the confidence in the world in them."
Washington's relievers repaid their skipper's faith. Ryan Mattheus stranded the tying run by getting two outs. All-Star Tyler Clippard came in to pitch the eighth and wiggled out of a one-out, two-on jam, striking out pinch hitter Jason Giambi and getting Mark Ellis to fly to center. Storen pitched the ninth, allowing a two-out double to Seth Smith before getting Cole Garner swinging at a third strike.
"They were right to bring in Mattheus," said Zimmermann. "I understand every decision you make. (Johnson) said, 'I think you've got a lot left in the tank, but we're going to go to the bullpen here.' I'm good with that. It all worked out."
While he was pitching, Zimmermann's biting slider was a thing of beauty. He moved it up and down, in and out of the strike zone, frustrating the Rockies.
"My slider was probably the best it's ever been and I felt like I could throw it whenever and wherever I wanted to," Zimmermann said.
Rick Ankiel provided some insurance with a solo homer in the eighth and Storen nailed down the victory that brought the Nationals to .500. But if you think the Nationals were satisfied about reaching break-even before the break, well, you'd be wrong.
"I don't remember last All-Star break," said Desmond. "The feeling here is that we kind of underachieved. (Being) .500 - maybe in the past, it's a milestone, but I think we're a better team than that. ... We left a lot (of wins) out there."
Said Johnson: "It's getting over .500 that counts. We're a young club coming up and trying to establish ourself as somebody to be reckoned with. ... Since I've been here, I'm under .500. I'm not real proud of that. But I like the direction we're heading in."
The victory broke a string of six straight one-run games during which the Nationals went 3-3. They're now 6-8 since Johnson took over June 24 in Anaheim. Storen said all the adversity they've encountered - losing streaks, managerial changes, injuries, inconsistency - has only toughened the Nationals.
"The camaraderie has been tested here with a multitude of things," Storen said. "Starting off, getting the rough start and Jim (Riggleman) leaving. It's the whole 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger' type thing. ... It's going to be nice to have a break, hit the rest button a little bit, but we're going to come back hungry."
Ryan Zimmerman hasn't been at .500 this late in a season since 2005, when he came up in September and the fledgling Nationals were desperately trying to stay in the Wild Card race. He likes the emerging sense that bigger and better results are possible.
"(Being) .500 is by no means acceptable, but we haven't been at ..500 (at this point) in a while," he said. "I guess it's a mini-accomplishment."
And one that, in Zimmerman's view, should only make the Nationals more eager to put .500 in their rear-view mirrors with a post-break winning streak. If they have to crawl before they can walk, the Nationals are teetering on two wobbly legs with watchful parents wondering how long they can be easily contained.
"We've found out this year that we think we can win," Zimmerman said. "Crazier things have happened in baseball.