ATLANTA — As the ball rocketed into the cool Atlanta air, bound for the left center field seats, Ian Desmond smacked his left hand on his helmet and quickly rounded the bases. With Bryce Harper crossing home plate in front of him, Desmond’s two-run homer gave the Nationals a lead.
With Jordan Zimmermann on the mound, it was plenty.
The Nationals notched a seminal victory Wednesday night, beating the Atlanta Braves 2-0 and topping their division rival for the first time in six games this season. Of equal importance, they appear to have dodged a significant injury to Harper, who left the game in the sixth inning with a contusion to the left side of his torso.
But perhaps the louder announcement of the evening was that of Zimmermann, thrusting himself further to the top of the discussion of the game’s elite pitchers.
Working on an 18-inning scoreless streak, Zimmerman held the Braves to just two hits, and after a double by Paul Maholm rattled around in the right field corner with one out in the third inning, not a single Braves batter touched first base. He struck out eight and walked none.
“I thought he was among the elites last year,” said manager Davey Johnson, who made the difficult decision to pull Zimmermann after eight innings and 107 pitches and turn to closer Rafael Soriano to nail down his eighth save of the season.
“He’s taken it up another notch this year.”
The Nationals’ starting pitching staff is expected to be in that position on a nightly basis. Early this season, while Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have shown flashes of it, it’s been Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler who have carried them when it comes to consistency.
With two complete games and going an average of 7 1/3 innings each start, Zimmermann is nudging himself into a class of his own.
“He mixed in everything a little, but for the most part he was just pounding the zone with his fastball, and we were behind it all night,” said Braves left fielder Justin Upton. “He had his stuff, and we got beat by it.”
The Braves could take some solace in knowing that they are not alone in feeling that way after facing Zimmermann.
Six starts into the season, Zimmermann’s WHIP, which is a pitcher’s walks plus hits per innings pitched, is a ridiculous 0.75. Less than one walk or hit per inning, a mark that is the best in the National League and behind only the Mariners’ Hisashi Iwakuma in all of the major leagues.
Over the course of his scoreless streak, which stretches to his final inning of his only loss of the season, Zimmermann has allowed just three hits and walked one.
“I’m very proud,” Zimmermann said. “I’m happy with the way the season has started. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the defense, they’ve been doing great. I haven’t been striking many guys out. I’m letting them put the ball in play and letting them make plays behind me.”
“I feel great. (Catcher Kurt Suzuki) and I have been on the same page pretty much every start. Everything he put down tonight, I was thinking about throwing before he put the fingers down.”
On the mound on Wednesday, Zimmermann felt a bit off at first. His fastball wasn’t locating the way he would’ve liked and he and Suzuki turned to his breaking pitches a little earlier than usual. He had thrown 39 pitches through two innings. But then he settled in. He worked quick, pounding the strike zone, and allowed his defense to play behind him.
In setting down the final 17 batters he faced, 12 of those outs came on the ground or in the air.
“We needed that one bad and he went out there and pitched a blueprint game,” Johnson said. “That was outstanding. Some good fastball hitters and he just came right at ‘em. He could throw any of his pitches over about any time. It was just a great game.”
And for the rest of the team, while Desmond’s offense was largely their only output against left-hander Paul Maholm, it was a game they enjoyed more than many they’ve played this season. And it was a win.
“That was a fun, fun game,” Desmond said. “We played our style of baseball and hopefully we can roll with it.
“I think it’s reassuring to see that we’re getting better everyday. I think we want to continue to get better until the postseason comes. We want to be playing our best baseball when it’s most important. We won 98 games last year. We were great, whatever. When it came down, we didn’t play that great. We want to continue to build until it really matters.”