(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Mark Grater, one of the Nationals’ spring coaches, has a standing joke with Jordan Zimmermann. Grater tells Zimmermann he has a “February change-up” – he throws it the first bullpen sessions of the year, vows to add it to his repertoire and then abandons the pitch during the season.

Year 3 of Zimmermann’s quest to develop a change-up may be different. Zimmermann felt more confidence in the pitch Friday night than he ever had before. In three innings, Zimmermann threw six change-ups out of his 49 pitches. Zimmermann allowed two earned runs on five hits, including a solo homer by Jason Heyward, and no walks while striking out four. He fired 39 strikes. Afterward, all he wanted to talk about was his change-up.

“It feels really, really good right now,” Zimmermann said. “I wanted to throw it about every pitch if I could, but I know that wasn’t the right thing to do. It’s definitely learning when to throw it, the right times. That’s the next step.”

Zimmermann thought all six change-ups were “really good.” Zimmermann started Dan Uggla with two fastballs, then struck him out with a change-up. Freddie Freeman lofted a change to the outfield for an easy fly out. But there is still the idea of when to throw it. He snapped a curveball to Juan Francisco, then came back with a change-up. The curveball “slowed down” Francisco’s bat, Zimmermann said, which made the change-up ineffective – Francisco smacked it back at him.

But in the spring, for Zimmermann, the sequence matters less than the quality of the pitch itself. He worked all winter to improve how he delivered it. Last year, he short-armed his change-up, which led to a lack of control and less of a velocity difference compared to his fastball than he wanted. Now, he is extending his arm.

“Obviously, it’s a lot slower now,” Zimmermann said. “I have a lot better feel for it.”

Said Manager Davey Johnson: “It just adds to his arsenal. I mean, that’s a great pitch. Hitters were taking funny swings off it.”

Zimmermann was clearly pleased with his outing. Not even the Heyward homer could get him down. He said Heyward was sitting on a fastball outside, and so he crushed it over the left field fence. In their next meeting, Zimmermann broke his bat with an inside fastball.

Mostly, though, Zimmermann was happy to take another step in proving he has more than a February change-up.

“Today is March 1, so I guess it hasn’t gone away,” Zimmermann said. “Hopefully it sticks with me for a little while.”

>>> Tyler Clippard, as you can read here, has been a workhorse for the Nationals’ bullpen the past three years. He made his spring debut tonight, striking out Christian Bethancourt with a change-up as part of a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 inning.

Clippard threw his fastball 92 miles per hour, which he was happy with. He mixed a pair of curveballs, and while one bounced in the dirt, Johnson was happy they weren’t hanging high.

“Everything looked pretty normal, which is good,” Clippard said. “It’s a good sign. I feel good out there. Seemed like my velo was good. Took a peek a couple times. That’s all your looking for in a spring training outing this early.”

Johnson held out Clippard until Friday night to conserve him for an abnormally long spring schedule and because he remembered last year. Clippard grew tired before opening day, possibly trying to claim the closer’s role after Drew Storen developed a bone chip in his elbow.

“I’m not trying to burn him up in the spring,” Johnson said. “I think he was the first to admit that last spring, he tried to get ready too early. I don’t know if that was Storen being out, and maybe he accelerated his trying to do too much, too early to try to maybe talk me into closing from the get.”

>>> Anthony Rendon played shortstop for the first time this spring, but Johnson insisted there should not be too much read into that. The Nationals have a logjam of third basemen with Chad Tracy, Matt Skole and Carlos Rivero, and so Johnson simply wanted to get Rendon at-bats at a different spot.

“He’s such a talented individual, I’ll put him in at short and third,” Johnson said.

Johnson has also worked one-on-one with Rendon this spring at second base, but he does not plan to put the Nats’ top prospect into a game at second anytime soon. “He’s got to do a little more footwork drills for me, but he has a real good aptitude,” Johnson said. “It’s something I want him to be real comfortable with before he goes over there.”

Johnson also said he wants to keep Rendon on the left side of the infield in games unless the Nationals decide to put him at second for good. “You hate to put him over there and then move him back to the other side,” Johnson said. “I want him basically over there until they’re sure where they’re going to need him down the line.”

>>> Bryce Harper clubbed his first homer of the spring, an opposite-field, solo blast off Julio Teheran in the first inning. He’s now 7 for 13 on the spring. … Danny Espinosa struck out twice in three at-bats and now has five strikeouts in 14 spring plate appearances. It’s too early to draw much out of that. But it’s not the most promising sign for a hitter trying to cut down on Ks after he had 189 last year. … Fernando Abad continued his under-the-radar campaign to make the bullpen. He struck out two and allowed a hit in a scoreless inning while earning a win. … Will Rhymes was the hero in a 6-5 win. He drilled an RBI single in his lone at-bat, and with two outs in the ninth his diving stop prevented a single from rolling into the outfield. If it had, the tying run would have scored. Instead, Jeremy Accardo stopped the bleeding and induced a tapper from Elmer Reyes with the bases loaded.