“He has confidence,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He’s going to throw what he wants to throw.”
Two batters later, Zimmermann had cleaved through the tension, the same as he had carved the Rockies all night. Zimmermann strolled along the path he had beaten between the mound and the first base dugout, same as all the other walks. His eyes focused on a spot two yards in front of his feet, his face blank, unmoved by the eruption around him. The fans at Nationals Park roared and his teammates rushed to greet him, all of them hoping — again — something about this Nationals season had finally shifted.
As so much about his team has teetered, Zimmermann has remained a beacon. Thursday night, he sent the Nationals (36-36) back to .500. The Nationals’ offense showed a pulse, whacking 11 hits and stealing two bases. Ian Desmond blasted his 11th home run, and Adam LaRoche went 3 for 4 with a two-run triple.
Sometimes when he walked off the mound, Zimmermann raised his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, which is how you know for certain he is not an automaton, just a likely all-star. He allowed six hits and no earned runs in eight innings, pitching past the seventh for the eighth time in 15 starts.
“A blueprint,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “What a game he pitched. We really needed it.”
The Nationals have waited all year to hit the hot streak that snaps their season-long underachievement. Behind Stephen Strasburg on Friday night, the Nationals have a chance to win three straight games, remarkably, for the first time since May 10. And, starting with their victory Thursday, the Nationals play 14 of 17 games at Nationals Park.
“It’s nice to be home,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We love playing here. To be able to be here for pretty much this whole month, it’s nice. I think we can use that to our advantage and hopefully go on a little run.”
In his last start, Zimmermann lasted only five innings and squandered a five-run lead. His bad starts have been blips. Since the start of last season, Zimmermann has allowed more than three earned runs in seven starts. In the outings following those clunkers, including last night, he has yielded one, two, zero, three, two, zero and zero earned runs.
“Tonight was one of those night’s where I wasn’t about to let this one slip away,” Zimmermann said.
Of 112 pitches, Zimmermann fired 85 strikes. Only two Nationals had ever thrown so many strikes, and none since 2005, the team’s inaugural season. Estaban Loaiza needed 128 pitches, and Livan Hernandez needed 145.