- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jordan Zimmermann’s major league debut will forever be remembered for the two rain delays that spanned a total of 2 hours and 43 minutes. It will be remembered for the lack of humanity inside Nationals Park, with perhaps one-tenth of the announced crowd of 12,473 actually in the building when Zimmermann threw his first pitch and perhaps 70 still lingering by the time Joel Hanrahan threw his last.

But above all else, the select few in the smallest crowd in stadium history who stuck it out to the end will remember that Zimmermann’s big league debut resulted in a Washington Nationals victory.

It’s quite possible the top prospect in the Nationals’ farm system will never experience another ballgame quite like this. And Zimmermann wouldn’t have it any other way.

With six superb innings of two-run ball, the 22-year-old right-hander led Washington to a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves that won’t go down as a work of fine art but still counts the same in the standings.

And considering their troubles in that department through the season’s first two weeks - this was their second victory in 12 games - the Nationals gladly will take it.

Career win No. 1 for Zimmermann was made possible not only by the young starter’s solid work on the mound but by a Washington lineup that squeezed out three runs against Braves ace Derek Lowe and then a remade bullpen that at last managed to close out a victory.

With his team clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth, manager Manny Acta made the decision to pull Zimmermann despite a pitch count that stood at just 72. Acta has long believed in letting a young starter depart on a high note, and he foretold his intentions before the game even began.

“We’re going to keep him out there as long as the Braves allow him to be out there,” Acta said. “After five, six innings and [if] we’re in a good position, as we’ve done the last three years here with these young guys, take him out of the game on a positive note where he can come out either with a win or a tie instead of on the losing end. That’s what we’re going to do to him.”

And that’s what Acta did. He called upon Kip Wells to pitch the seventh. He called upon Joe Beimel and Garrett Mock to pitch the eighth (with a 33-minute rain delay in between). And he called upon Hanrahan to pitch the ninth.

Having blown his first two save opportunities on back-to-back days over the weekend, Hanrahan was all business this time, and the Nationals finally were able to celebrate at the middle of the diamond, thanks to their new-look bullpen.

Three-sevenths of Washington’s bullpen looked different Monday than it did Sunday, with Saul Rivera, Steven Shell and Wil Ledezma shipped out and Jason Bergmann, Mock and Wells all summoned from Class AAA.

The moves were just as surprising for the men called up (who hadn’t even spent two weeks with Syracuse) as for those sent down.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting to be called up this fast or expecting for all these moves to be made,” Mock said. “But I’m definitely glad to be here.”

Whether those three changes will have a lasting impact one way or the other on the Nationals’ fortunes is questionable. Still, Acta hoped the roster shakeup served as a reminder to everyone else in the clubhouse “that we’re trying to win. And if you’re not getting your act straight, you’ve got to get it straight.”

Acta didn’t have to think about his relievers most of the night, not the way Zimmermann cruised through the game’s first six innings. The young right-hander made his presence known with a 1-2-3 first inning that lasted all of seven pitches (all strikes) and then settled into a nice groove.

His only real mistake came in the fourth, just as he looked poised to escape a runner-on-third, no-out jam. Zimmermann got two outs and had Matt Diaz behind in the count 0-2 when he left a fastball up and out over the plate. He might have gotten away with that pitch in Harrisburg or Syracuse, but in Washington it was quickly deposited over the left-field fence for a two-run homer.

Not that Zimmermann was fazed by the first runs allowed in his big league career. The steely-eyed hurler went right back to work, struck out Jordan Schafer and didn’t surrender another hit the rest of the night.

Sitting on 72 pitches after six innings, he appeared well on his way to a truly dynamic debut. But on this night, six innings of two-run, six-hit ball was going to have to be good enough. And Zimmermann - like his new manager - was going to have to have faith in a Washington bullpen that to date had done little to earn it.

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