Zimmermann earns first win; Nats jump out to best start in franchise history

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SAN DIEGO — Ryan Zimmerman sat and watched from the dugout Wednesday, helpless to his team for the time being with inflammation in his right AC joint. Michael Morse was thousands of miles away, two weeks into a six-week rest period for his torn right lat muscle.

The Washington Nationals offense is trying to withstand the loss of Morse, their 31-homer cleanup hitter from a year ago, and any extended absence from Zimmerman would seem to be detrimental to the team with the best record in the National League and its currently below-average offense.

But under an overcast sky in San Diego, the Nationals milled about loosely. They saw nothing wrong with tossing up their feet on the dugout railing and flashing a smile every now and then. Pitchers threw in the bullpen just to get some work in.

After three weeks full of heart-pounding finishes, in the Nationals’ 7-2 win over the Padres — their largest margin of victory this season — they could finally take their foot off the gas.

“It’s nice to be where every pitch, every play, isn’t a potential loss,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, the Nats’ best hitter this season after another 3-for-4 day with two runs scored and an RBI. “We keep flirting with these one, two-run games. One bad pitch, one bad hop, one big base hit here or there, and you’re losing.”

Except that for the 2012 Nationals, even in those close games, that defining blow has rarely come. At 14-4, the Nationals are off to the best start in Nats-Expos franchise history. Their pitching staff’s 2.20 ERA ranks as the best in the major leagues and their starting pitchers have allowed one run in the last 28 innings. That run came via a solo homer off Jordan Zimmermann in the fifth that broke a team-record 26-inning scoreless streak for the rotation.

And then there’s this: for the second day in a row, they’re owners of the best record in the National League.

For an organization that spent most of its first seven years in Washington mired in losing and dysfunction, it would be easy for the players in the clubhouse to be bouncing off the walls. Instead, the stock answer is one of cautious optimism.

“It’s just early,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “We’re not totally running at full steam, but we’re getting there.

“Whatever adversity it seems like they’re throwing at us, we’re handling it pretty well,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, terming the attitude as one of “calm confidence.”

Zimmermann has needed to display that every time out as his teammates continue to support him with few runs on days he pitches. You’d have to go back to August to find the last time Zimmermann pitched with a two-run lead. As he took the mound for the bottom of the second Wednesday, buoyed by Rick Ankiel’s RBI double that drove in LaRoche and his own run-scoring single, even he admitted it felt a little different.

“It’s pretty nice going out there when you’ve got a two-run lead in a big ballpark like this,” Zimmermann said, the home run by Orlando Hudson his only mistake of the day, as he went six innings, allowed four hits, no walks and struck out six.

“If you get behind, you can just groove them something over the middle and let them put it in play and try to get themselves out,” Zimmermann said, noting he relied on his changeup more heavily than he ever has. “I threw a few balls to a few guys and then I just decided to throw a fastball and let them put it in play.That’s what I did when I really got in trouble.”

It was only a one-run game when Zimmermann escaped the sixth. At 82 pitches, his pitch count was low, and in many circumstances, Johnson would’ve allowed him to throw one more frame. But he was due to leadoff the inning and the manager felt it was time to try and tack on a few runs.

“I had to get Zim out of there,” Johnson said. “We can’t score when he’s pitching.”

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