Zimmermann dominates in meeting with Smoltz

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Jordan Zimmermann will undoubtedly have more nights like this before his big league career ends. It’s probably safe to say, though, that no matter how many games he wins, this one will always have a special place in his heart.

It wasn’t just that the Washington Nationals rookie thoroughly dominated for seven innings during a cathartic 9-3 victory Thursday night. It was that he did it opposite a future Hall of Famer, in front of an overflow crowd, against a loaded Boston Red Sox lineup.

“It’s definitely cool to go out and do that,” he said.

Zimmermann had already made strides in his first two months as a major leaguer. This, however, might have been the 23-year-old’s coming-out party.

With seven innings of one-run ball, Zimmermann blew away the Red Sox for his third career win. And with a barrage of hits against 42-year-old John Smoltz in his Boston debut, Washington coasted to a rare blowout victory before a crowd of 41,985 - the third Nationals Park record in as many nights.

A great pitching performance. A prolonged offensive attack. A sellout crowd. Have the Nationals enjoyed such a confluence of events at any other point this season? Not likely.

“A win is a win,” said outfielder Willie Harris, who had another big night with a home run and two singles. “But for us to go out there and score some runs like that against a Hall of Famer, I think that should boost our morale a little bit.”

This was only the seventh time this year Washington won a ballgame by more than three runs. For the first time in a long time, manager Manny Acta was able to pull some starters early and relax during the final innings.

For that, he could thank Zimmermann, who turned in his fourth straight solid outing, a stretch during which he has posted a 1.90 ERA and re-established himself as the premier rookie in the Nationals’ rotation.

“I’ve been doing real well this last month here,” he said. “I think the key is just getting ahead of hitters. All my pitches have been working.”

Zimmermann (3-3) was on his game from the moment he took the mound Thursday, retiring the side in the top of the first on 12 pitches and setting a tone for the rest of the night. He threw 39 of his first 53 offerings for strikes, carried a shutout into the sixth and departed having thoroughly impressed a Boston lineup that had been averaging 5.4 runs.

“I think it says a lot about him,” Acta said. “Packed house, against a ballclub like that. … It’s a championship-caliber club, and for this kid to go out there and have that type of outing, I think it says a lot.”

This was nothing new for the organization’s top pitching prospect. Though he has experienced some ups and downs in his rookie season, Zimmermann at his best has been quite impressive. He has allowed two runs or fewer in seven of his 12 starts.

“He’s good,” catcher Josh Bard said. “He’s good.”

That Zimmermann (who was 2 when Smoltz made his big league debut in 1988) did it while going up against a pitching legend only added to the scene. Though Smoltz pitched well in six rehab starts in the past month, the Red Sox didn’t know what they were going to get when he faced a big league opponent for the first time since June 2, 2008.

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