But Zimmermann led the way. He allowed four hits over six scoreless innings, striking out six while walking only one. He baffled the Marlins with sliders and curves and overpowered them with his fastball, which zipped at 95 mph. He retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, striking out five. All four hits he allowed were singles, two of them bloops into the shallow outfield.
“He’s Mr. Consistency,” Zimmerman said. “You know what you’re going to get out of him. He doesn’t ever get too emotional. He’s the same guy every time.”
Zimmermann is often dominant and always durable. He has thrown at least six innings in 18 of 18 starts, a feat matched in the major leagues this year only by Justin Verlander. Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez made the All-Star Game, but Zimmermann leads the Nationals in innings (116 1/3) and ERA, which he lowered Friday to 2.48.
The Nationals (50-34) know they will eventually shut down Strasburg for the season because of a to-be-determined innings limit. “I’m going to be stubborn when it comes to that,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. They will lose one of their two aces, but they may have another emerging in Zimmermann.
“No question about it,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Last year, I thought he pitched like a No. 1. He’s continued this year. He’s grown up even more.”
Zimmermann cruised Friday night. He spotted his four-seam fastball where he wanted to, and he could throw both his curveball and slider. His curve breaks vertically and curls slowly into the plate, giving hitters a different look than his biting, high-80s slider. “I feel like I can flip [the curve] in there and get ahead of guys,” Zimmermann said. “The slider is kind of my out pitch.”
The Nationals broke out spiffy red batting helmets on the road, a nod to the Senators of Frank Howard’s vintage. They wore them well. The offense gave Zimmermann ample support, spotting him five runs and knocking out Marlins ace Josh Johnson in the sixth inning.
In the third inning, Zimmerman gave the Nationals breathing room and continued the tear he started in the two weeks prior to the break. He lambasted a 3-1 slider from Johnson, sending it clattering off the psychedelic home run merry-go-round erected behind the left-center field fence. The Marlins estimated it landed 399 feet from home plate, and it put the Nationals ahead, 3-0.
Zimmerman is hitting .359 with seven homers in 64 at-bats since he received a cortisone shot for his aching right shoulder on June 24. “The shoulder’s felt fine,” Zimmerman said. “I really didn’t need that” rest he received over the all-star break.
Leading off the sixth, LaRoche drilled a single up the middle. Desmond, who leads the Nationals with 17 home runs, dropped a bunt between third base and the mound for a single. After LaRoche moved to third on a flyout, Desmond swiped second base, his 12th steal this year.
Then hilarity ensued. Jesus Flores flared a blooper into left field. LaRoche retreated to third base to tag up in case Logan Morrison made the catch.
“I guess Adam was going to tag up if the guy caught it and score with his speed,” Zimmerman deadpanned.
Desmond read immediately that Morrison had no chance to reach the shallow flare. Before every pitch, Desmond checks the depth of outfielders so he can make quick, good decisions. He had noticed Morrison playing deep, so he bolted.
“That’s stuff you’ve been looking at since you were a kid,” Desmond said. “I do it every day in batting practice.”
By the time ball plopped to the turf, Desmond and LaRoche, one swift base runner and one plodder, had nearly converged at third base. Desmond tiptoed around the bag and LaRoche ran as if he was being chased. “I could have easily caught him,” Desmond said. “I was yelling at him, ‘Go, go!’ ”
LaRoche crossed the plate two steps ahead of Desmond. Morrison’s throw arrived a tick afterward. The Nationals led, 5-0, Flores had a two-RBI single and the players in the dugout swarmed both base runners.
Bryce Harper had set an aggressive tone. In the first inning, he flared a single to left field and, after hustling around first, took second base on Morrison’s bobble.
With Harper on second, Johnson held the ball on the mound between pitches. Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez meandered over to chat with shortstop Jose Reyes, the pair standing on the edge of the grass. Harper took a few mischievous steps off the base, and then, with no one paying attention, he bolted. Harper slid in safely before Ramirez could scurry back to the bag.
“I saw Hanley and Reyes just talking,” Harper said. “I saw Johnson rubbing the ball. I just took off.”
Given the same sequence, most major leaguers would have still been stationed on first. Harper stood on third. Even if he would be stranded there, he added to the long list of hustle plays.
“That kind of sparked my mind a little bit,” Desmond said. “It got me thinking, ‘Would I have done that?’ I was just a little more alert throughout the game.”
Later, Harper ended the sixth inning with a sliding catch of a shallow pop fly behind second base, possibly saving a run. Zimmermann walked off the mound, another night’s work done, a few more people convinced his name belongs next to any in pitching.