The Washington Times - May 9, 2013, 12:51AM

The signs that Jordan Zimmermann has emerged as the Washington Nationals’ ace are often smaller pieces that make up the larger picture.

There’s the fact that the Nationals have won six of the seven games he’s started for them this season, or the minuscule 1.59 ERA. Or the way he’s managed to intertwine his dominance over strong lineups with an exceptional efficiency on the mound. 

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And then there’s the scene where opposing hitters do manage to reach base against him, when they do spend a few minutes with first baseman Adam LaRoche during a game, all they can talk about is how tough it is to face the Nationals’ reserved right-hander from Wisconsin. 

Leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, who possess arguably the best lineup in all of baseball, Zimmermann reaffirmed all of those things on Wednesday night.

He was superb. Again. In holding the Tigers to one run off seven hits and two walks — despite dealing with an extra day of rest as well as a 57-minute delay due to inclement weather — Zimmermann continued to establish that his sterling performances are his norm. And anything less should be considered the exception for him now.

In a rotation that contains three pitchers with at least one All-Star Game on their respective resumes, along with a former first-round pick, it is Zimmermann, time and again this season, who has proven he is among the game’s best.

“Again, same Jordan,” LaRoche said. “I don’t think he’s scared of anybody. I don’t think he cares who’s hitting. He’s pounding the zone and working ahead, sticking with his plan. It continues to pay off.”

“Jordan is fun to watch,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard, who took over and used 34 pitches in a lengthy but scoreless eighth inning. “He’s been as good as it gets for a few years now, I think.”

When the 2013 season began, there were 18 pitchers with equal or better odds than Jordan Zimmermann to win the National League Cy Young Award, according to Bovada.com — including two of his own rotation mates in Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. 

When the online oddsmaker released their latest update this week, Zimmermann was listed third, having gone from 25-1 odds to being close to a favorite at 5-1. Only Clayton Kerhsaw from the Dodgers and Madison Bumgarner from the Giants were ahead of him.

On the field, right now, you’d have a hard time making the case that Zimmermann couldn’t outduel any other pitcher. 

Certainly not Anibal Sanchez, who did not pitch poorly in allowing three runs (two earned) over six innings against the Nationals. But he lost to them for the first time in his career because the runs the Nationals tallied were more than enough for Zimmermann.

He lost because Bryce Harper’s 10th home run of the season, coupled with a sacrifice fly from the 20-year-old that drove in Denard Span and a gutsy play by LaRoche to tag up from second to third and force right fielder Torii Hunter to sail his throw into the camera well, was all the Nationals needed. 

When you have good pitching, you look a lot better,” said manager Davey Johnson, who kept his bullpen dormant in the seventh inning even after Zimmermann surrendered a two-out single and needed to get Hunter to end the inning and avoid facing Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. 

“He doesn’t show a lot of outward expression, but there’s a big fire burning there. He likes just about any challenge… I just had total confidence in him.”

Zimmermann entered the game working on an 18-inning scoreless streak. It’d stretch to 20 innings before Hunter, who doubled with two outs in the second inning, would come around to score on Cabrera’s single to left field. It was a good pitch Cabrera hit, and Zimmermann knew it. So he brushed it off.

He continued to pound the Tigers with fastballs and sliders, feeling his curveball and his changeup were off on this night, and altered the game plan some after the first time through the order by throwing more first-pitch breaking balls and catching the Tigers a bit off guard.

By the time Rafael Soriano had sealed his 11th save of the season, the number of teammates untucking their jerseys to join in his small save celebration growing to four, Zimmermann had four scoreless innings in the books to jumpstart another streak.  

Most of the talk entering the game surrounded the Tigers’ fearsome hitters, and how Zimmermann would handle attacking them. But perhaps the tables have turned some on those stepping in against Zimmermann, those muttering under their breath on the seemingly rare occasions they reach first base. Maybe they have to figure out how to face him.  

I don’t really look at it like that,” Zimmermann said with a smile. “They have one of the best lineups in baseball and you have to be careful with every one of their hitters… . I don’t think anyone’s an ace on this staff. We’re all equal. We’re all the same. We go out there and try to do our job everyday.” 

Still, the right-hander could admit, at 6-1 and with an ERA in his previous three games of 0.38, this may be the best run he’s had in his career to date.

“I don’t think I’ve had one better than this,” he said. “So it’s got to be the best.”