- 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 Nationals history who stuck it out to the end will remember that Zimmermann’s big league debut resulted in a Washington victory.

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

“I couldn’t ask for a better first start,” he said. “I mean, getting the win, pitching against the Braves … just a great day.”

With six superb innings of two-run ball, the 22-year-old right-hander led Washington to a 3-2 win over Atlanta 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.

“Hey, we did what we had to do,” manager Manny Acta said.

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, Acta made the decision to pull Zimmermann despite a pitch count that stood at just 72. The manager has long believed in letting a young starter depart on a high note, and he was true to his word Monday when he sent up a pinch-hitter with two outs, two on and his team up a run.

“He was going to go out there again if he didn’t get to hit,” Acta said. “But that was an opportunity for us, not only to add runs but also to take him out on a positive note.”

In order for that positive note to remain by nights end, though, the Nationals beleaguered bullpen had to record nine outs without surrendering a run. And that’s just what they did.

Kip Wells pitched a scoreless seventh. Joe Beimel and Garrett Mock combined to pitch a scoreless eighth (with a 33-minute rain delay in between). And Hanrahan made quick work of the ninth, overcoming a one-out walk to get through unscathed and earn his first save after blowing opportunities both Friday and Saturday.

“Any time you mess up, you want to get right back out there,” Hanrahan said. “Yesterday was a long day, knowing I wasn’t going to pitch. … It felt good to get out there and get the job done finally.”

Even if the scene at the end barely resembled a major league ballgame.

“It was different,” Hanrahan said. “It was kind of like pitching in high school again. They’ve got 10 fans there. You can hear everything they say.”

Hanrahan was one of the lucky few who survived Washingtons bullpen overhaul on Sunday, one that saw Saul Rivera, Steven Shell and Wil Ledezma get 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. A terrible pitch, he said later.

Zimmermann 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 he 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.

“The last two years, I don’t see anybody pitching like this guy like he did tonight,” catcher Jesus Flores said. “He was really focused in what he was doing, throwing the ball on both sides of the plate, and he had tremendous command of his pitches.”

“When it was all over, once he had been presented with a game ball and a shaving cream pie to the face, Zimmermann couldn’t wait to go back to his new apartment, where 25 friends and family members were waiting to celebrate the moment.”

And then, the potential future ace of the Nationals wanted to put his head down on a pillow and enjoy some well-deserved shuteye after a long, strange but very enjoyable big league debut.

All in all, he said, it was a good day.

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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