ATLANTA — While Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez battled their way through the season's first month, their inconsistency mirroring the Nationals' overall up-and-down performance, Jordan Zimmermann simply took the ball every fifth day and did everything within his power to pitch his team to victory.
So when the Nationals took the field Wednesday night at Turner Field, desperate to beat a Braves club that had dominated them in five previous meetings this season, who better than Zimmermann to lead the way?
Who knows how the Nationals' rotation will be aligned come season's end, who will be designated staff ace and who will bring up the rear? Make no mistake, though: Right now, Zimmermann is the best pitcher on this staff. He's also legitimately among the very best pitchers in baseball.
"There's no question about it," manager Davey Johnson said following a 2-0 victory over Atlanta. "We needed that one bad, and he went out there and pitched a blueprint game. That was outstanding."
With eight dominant innings of two-hit ball, Zimmermann continued his early season domination of major-league lineups and extended his streak of scoreless innings pitched to 18. In that time, he has allowed only three hits and allowed only five opposing batters to reach base.
One month into the season, nobody in the National League owns more wins (5) or a lower WHIP (0.75) than Zimmermann, and only three pitchers boast better ERAs than his sparkling 1.65 mark.
"He's obviously got everything working right now," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "He's pitching up in the zone, down in the zone, he's really mixing it up with his breaking balls for strikes, throwing some change-ups. He's got it working."
And the Nationals couldn't have asked for a better time for Zimmermann to churn out another gem than on this night, with an injury-riddled lineup again struggling to score runs and a confident Braves club on the other side of the field that had won nine consecutive matchups between the two division rivals.
It didn't seem to matter to Zimmermann that his teammates provided only two runs of support — both of them scoring on Ian Desmond's homer to left-center in the top of the fourth. And it didn't seem to matter that by night's end the Nationals were without Ryan Zimmerman (rehabbing from a strained hamstring at Class A Potomac), Jayson Werth (out for the second straight night with ankle and hamstring issues) and Bryce Harper (who departed after aggravated his bruised left side in the sixth inning).
True to his bulldog nature, Zimmermann simply kept taking the mound inning after inning and setting down the Braves without giving them even a sniff of an opportunity to rally.
"He's kind of a free attitude," Suzuki said. "Go out there and throw the ball. 'Here it is. If you hit it, you hit it. I'm giving you my best and challenging you.'"
Zimmermann has been doing this throughout his career, but especially over the last week. Only five nights earlier, he tossed a one-hit shutout over the Reds, needing only 91 pitches to go the distance. The Braves made him work a tad more in this one, leaving him at 107 pitches through eight innings, but the right-hander (having retired 17 straight) felt strong enough to return for the ninth if given the opportunity.
"Yeah, I was still good," he said. "What did I have,  pitches? I still felt great and everything was still working in that last inning."
Johnson, though, didn't want to take a chance. Besides, Rafael Soriano hadn't pitched in four days, so the veteran closer was given the ball for the ninth inning and promptly retired the side to earn his eighth save and secure a much-needed victory.
"That was one of my tougher hooks," Johnson said. "Going to the ninth inning, if he'd have got somebody on and I had to go get him, I didn't want to put that kind of heat on my closer."
Zimmermann, of course, just shrugged it all off. He doesn't seem to care about the situation, how many pitches he's thrown or how many runs his teammates have provided him.
Right now, there's nobody the Nationals would rather see on the mound in a big game than the soft-spoken right-hander from Wisconsin who is finally being recognized around baseball for being one of the game's elite pitchers.
"You want to be a stopper, that's for sure," he said. "We had been struggling the last couple games, and I wanted to go out there and go as deep as I can and try to get a win and stop this losing streak."