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WSH@ATL: Zimmermann hurls eight scoreless vs. Braves

ATLANTA -- When the Nationals need a win these days, they turn to their elite pitcher.

Which one, you ask?

Although most fans logically think Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, and would be right to do so, right now it means Jordan Zimmermann.

"You want to be a stopper," said Zimmermann, who improved his record to 5-1 by throwing eight shutout innings and allowing only two hits while striking out eight in Wednesday's 2-0 win over the Braves. "We had been struggling. They've been beating up on us so far this year. You definitely want to get the first win."

The Nationals got that win and started May off on the right foot by getting something they hadn't seen in a while, a home run, and something they've seen quite often, a well-pitched game from Zimmermann.

The win snapped the team's nine-game losing streak to the Braves and its five-game skid at Turner Field.

"We needed that one bad, and [Zimmermann] pitched a blueprint game," said manager Davey Johnson. "[They have] some good fastball hitters, and he just came right at them. He could throw any of his pitches over about any time. That was one of my tougher hooks."

The win had a tense moment, however, as outfielder Bryce Harper left the game in the middle of the sixth inning, appearing to have injured himself during an at-bat in the top half of the frame. Harper winced after trying to check his swing on an 0-1 pitch before grounding out on a wicked smash to first baseman Freddie Freeman with the next pitch, and was replaced by Roger Bernadina in right field.

The swing aggravated the bruise Harper suffered during Tuesday's game; he is optimistic that he'll be able to play on Thursday.

"That check swing got me," said Harper. "That was the biggest thing -- having all my force going to the ball and then stop. It got me to the point where I couldn't breathe and I had to catch my breath. It didn't feel very good."

Two innings earlier, Harper's leadoff walk led to the game's only runs.

Ian Desmond followed the walk by blasting a hanging 1-1 curve ball from Atlanta starter Paul Maholm (3-3) over the wall in left-center to break a scoreless tie. The homer, Desmond's fourth of the year, extended his hitting streak to a team-high eight games and was the Nats' first in 31 innings. The last one came in the fourth inning on April 27, when Harper went deep against Cincinnati's Alfredo Simon.

Desmond credited the swing to a tip he had received from former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones.

"Tonight I just wanted to stay balanced and just make sure I stayed on my legs," said Desmond. "Chipper actually told me that. I saw him the other day, sitting behind the screen, and I just thought, 'Stay on my legs.' Good things happen."

The two runs were more than enough for Zimmermann (5-1), who shut out the Braves on two hits over eight innings, lowering his ERA to 1.64 and extending his shutout streak to 18 innings. He has allowed three hits in 17 innings over his last two starts and given up only eight runs all season in 44 innings.

Zimmermann retired the final 17 batters he faced on Wednesday, with the last hit -- a double by Maholm -- coming with one out in the third inning. A key was his relentless pounding of the strike zone, as he threw 72 of his 107 pitches for strikes.

"He's obviously got everything working right now," said catcher Kurt Suzuki. "He's pitching up in the zone, down in the zone, in and out, he's really mixing it up with his breaking balls, he's throwing breaking balls for strikes. He's got it working. Even during the game, he keeps it loose. He's really fun to work with."

Zimmermann and Suzuki were in sync the entire night.

"Zuki and I have been on the same page pretty much every start," Zimmermann said. "Everything he put down tonight I was thinking about throwing before he put the fingers down. So it's definitely easy when you and the catcher are on the same page."

The Braves couldn't get a read on that page.

"He had his fastball going and he mixed everything in a little bit," said Atlanta outfielder Justin Upton, who had the Braves' only other hit, a two-out single in the first inning. "For the most part, he was just pounding the zone with his fastball, and we were behind it all night."

The only issue was whether Zimmermann would throw back-to-back complete games. Although he said he felt good, he also felt good about his manager's decision to bring in closer Rafael Soriano.

"I knew some guys needed to get some work in, and Sori hasn't pitched in a few days," he said. "I knew he wanted to get him out there. I'm happy with that."

He was even happier with the Nats' closer and former Brave, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his eighth save in his first appearance since, coincidentally, April 27.

The Nats feel better about themselves heading into Thursday night's finale.

"We put up a lot better at-bats tonight, played a lot better defense," said Desmond. "That was a fun game. We played our style of baseball. Hopefully, we can roll with it."

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