WASHINGTON — If the Washington Nationals eventually turn their franchise around, perhaps April 20, 2009, will be looked back upon as a day of true significance.
Highly touted pitching prospect Jordan Zimmermann won his major league debut Monday night, throwing six strong innings in Washington’s rainy 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves, hours after Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s $45 million, five-year contract was announced.
Zimmermann (1-0) allowed two runs and six hits, with three strikeouts and a walk.
The veteran of the pair, Zimmerman with one "N," jokingly made reference to "the kid starting today — THE Zimmermann. I guess I’m ‘the other guy’ now."
The announced paid attendance of 12,473 set a new low for the team since it moved from Montreal to Washington. But perhaps 1,000 or so spectators actually were present to witness Zimmermann’s first pitch in the majors after rain all afternoon and into the evening resulted in a delay at the start of 2 hours, 10 minutes.
There was also a 33-minute delay with Atlanta batting in the eighth, and only dozens of fans remained after midnight, when Joel Hanrahan finished pitching the ninth to earn his first save in three chances.
The game goes into the books as Washington’s second victory of the season, improving its record to 2-10 — this, after the team lost a majors-high 102 games in 2008. It was a much-needed win following three consecutive losses in which the Nationals’ bullpen blew ninth-inning leads, leading to an overhaul in which three new relievers were summoned from the minors.
Washington’s Jesus Flores drove in two runs and Elijah Dukes the other off loser Derek Lowe (1-1).
The 22-year-old Zimmermann was a second-round draft pick in 2007 who played at Division III school Wisconsin-Stevens Point and hadn’t played above Double-A ball until this season.
"It’s not the nicest day to debut," Washington manager Manny Acta said, thinking about the weather before the game. "Who knows? Maybe that’ll make the opposition uncomfortable, and the kid will feel comfortable. He’s from Wisconsin, so this is not so bad for him."
Indeed, Zimmermann started quite impressively, needing only seven pitches — all strikes — in a 1-2-3 first inning, reaching 95 mph. The second inning wasn’t as neat: The right-hander allowed his first two hits, both doubles. But neither runner scored. The rookie allowed two more hits in the third, but got out of the inning when Escobar grounded into a double play.
After Chipper Jones led off the fourth with a triple, Zimmermann retired the next two batters and moved out to an 0-2 count on Matt Diaz. But the next pitch was a mistake — and Diaz drove it over the wall in left for his second homer of the season and a 2-0 lead.
Washington tied it in the fourth, then went up 3-2 in the sixth on three consecutive singles, with Flores’ hit driving in the go-ahead run. With two on and two out, Acta pinch-hit for Zimmermann, and there were some boos from the few fans still around when Alex Cintron was announced as the batter.
Cintron flied out.
As he explained before the game, Acta likes to take out young pitchers when they’re tied or leading. As he also explained beforehand, there’s a lot Acta likes about the newest member of his rotation.
"Other than that 93-94 mph fastball, and that sharp slider and the good changeup," Acta said, "I like his mental makeup."Notes: Braves C Brian McCann was out of the starting lineup for a second consecutive game because of blurred vision. He is to meet with an eye doctor today.
... In the fifth, Zimmermann benefited from an odd 3-4-7-6 double play. Lowe popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt with David Ross on first. 1B Nick Johnson let the ball drop before picking it up and throwing to 2B Anderson Hernandez covering at first. With Ross caught between first and second base, Hernandez’s throw ricocheted off Ross’ helmet and toward the outfield. Ross collided with SS Alberto Gonzalez, stumbled as he reached second and fell to the dirt. In the meantime, LF Josh Willingham scooped up the ball and threw to Gonzalez, who tagged Ross. ... Umpire Fieldin Culbreth missed the game because of illness.