The Washington Times - March 13, 2011, 05:16PM

JUPITER, Fla. — Three starts into the spring, and roughly 19 months after undergoing Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery, Jordan Zimmermann has an unblemished ERA and a renewed confidence.

Zimmermann was impressive and efficient in five innings on Sunday against the Marlins, allowing three hits and walking one in a shutout performance that helped stake the Nationals to a 5-0 lead in an eventual 5-1 victory.

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“It was the best outing I’ve had so far this spring,” Zimmermann said.

The right-hander was in control of almost all 68 of his pitches, throwing 44 of them for strikes, and was especially dominant with his curveball, which hasn’t been his most consistent pitch this spring.

“I had control of everything and got the ball down,” Zimmermann said. “The curveball was really sharp today so it was good. It’s getting a lot better.

“The first couple of starts, it was hit or miss if it was going to be good… but I had good feel today and every time I got the call today I knew it was going to be a good, sharp downward break to it.”

Only two balls against Zimmermann were struck well, a double to left center off the bat of Gaby Sanchez in the fourth and a single to left by Bryan Petersen in the fifth. Both were ultimately harmless as the right-hander promptly got out of the inning one batter later in each instance.

“Pitching is so important,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “If you pitch good it gives you a chance to win — and Jordan pitched good.”

Zimmermann was dominant, a good sign for the Nationals as they look for contributions to help ease the sting of not acquiring a front-end starter this offseason, but was also the benefactor of several nice defensive plays.

Riggleman called it the “best defensive game” his team has played all spring, and two of the best plays came in the third inning.

Second baseman Danny Espinosa — who’d been hit in the head with a pitch from Ricky Nolasco in the first inning but stayed in the game and said he was fine — got to a ball deep in the hole at second and made a mid-air throw to get Bryan Petersen at first to start the inning. Alex Cora, Espinosa and Adam LaRoche then combined on a nicely executed double play, with a timely scoop from LaRoche, to end the inning after Zimmermann issued his only walk.

It was the longest outing of the spring for Zimmermann, who will most likely face the Marlins again in the Nationals’ first road series of the season, April 5-8. He has yet to allow a run this spring and has given up as many hits (8) as he has strikeouts.

He was followed on the mound by Henry Rodriguez, who came to the Nationals this offseason as part of the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland, and was making his debut in a Nationals uniform. Rodriguez came in with a reputation for lighting up radar guns — and he was certainly popping the mitt on Sunday — but his control is an issue.

After allowing a leadoff double to Chris Coghlan, which was aided by a circuitous route to the ball by left fielder Eury Perez, Rodriguez induced a ground ball out before walking three consecutive batters to bring Coghlan home.

“I think it was signs of rust there,” Riggleman said. “I told him I was very pleased with the way the ball came out of his hand. It was good velocity and he mixed in a couple decent breaking balls. It was the first outing, we got it out of the way and I think he’ll do better the next time.”

In 1/3 of an inning, Rodriguez threw 23 pitches and only eight strikes.

With Jesus Flores serving as a translator, Rodriguez said after the game that, since it was the first time he was facing hitters, he was rushing a bit.

“He’s going to work on making adjustments and come back with a good outing,” Flores said for Rodriguez.