WASHINGTON -- The Nationals questioned their skipper on Sunday, and after his 14th game in Washington, Davey Johnson completely understood.
Jordan Zimmermann dominated the Rockies, but got the hook in the seventh inning, and Johnson could only laugh at the challenges and dismiss potential unrest. The bullpen finished what Zimmermann started, preserving a 2-0 win entering the All-Star break.
"I'm sure everybody in the stands thought I gave him a quick hook," Johnson said. "And it probably was."
Zimmermann stepped into the batter's box an inning earlier, and Johnson had the same thought all 21,186 at Nationals Park did: Washington only needed one.
So Zimmermann laid down a picture-perfect sacrifice bunt, moving Ian Desmond into scoring position and setting up Roger Bernadina's RBI single, giving Zimmermann and the bullpen the only run they needed.
"But that second run was sure sweet," Johnson said.
It came when Rick Ankiel hit an eighth-inning homer, giving closer Drew Storen more breathing room in recording his 23rd save. Storen closed it, but it was Zimmermann's last opportunity to be the staff ace, and he did just that.
The right-hander shut Colorado down for 6 1/3 innings, walking none and striking out six on only 88 pitches. Todd Helton led off the seventh and blooped the Rockies' fourth hit into shallow left-center between a charging Bernadina and Laynce Nix, and Johnson let Zimmermann get one more out before calling to the bullpen.
"When you're in a close game, you never really are too sure what's going to happen, but Jordan was phenomenal," said Washington reliever Tyler Clippard, who picked his league-leading 23rd hold before heading to the All-Star Game. "He's kind of proven to everyone in the league what kind of pitcher he is, and what kind of pitcher we all knew he could be."
Zimmermann was in control when he exited, but understood the decision.
His season will end in late August or early September, when he hits 160 innings -- the limit the Nats set in his first full season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2009. And any pitches he can save can only extend his season.
"I just want to pitch as well as I can until I get to that limit," Zimmermann said.
Johnson was unhappy with the plan to slow Zimmermann's workload down when pitching coach Steve McCatty introduced it to him, and Sunday's start showed why.
The plan moved Zimmermann to the fifth spot in Washington's rotation. It skipped his starts on off-days. It went out of its way to shuffle the rotation and get the 25-year-old to September and an expanded roster. Johnson nixed that idea.
The win allowed the Nats to enter the break at .500, and if they are serious about staying there, Johnson realizes he needs Zimmermann to be a regular part of it.
"I'm going right along regular with him," Johnson said. "I'm not going to treat him like a fifth starter, because he's certainly not a fifth starter. When his turn comes up, he's going to be out there."
After 6 1/3 innings, Zimmermann's season total is already at 115. His previous career high was 91 1/3 in his rookie season before he underwent surgery. He struck out 92 that season. After racking up six Sunday, that number is at 82, despite a greater workload.
"I used to like getting a lot of strikeouts," Zimmermann said. "Now I have in my mind that strikeouts aren't that big of a deal, they just make your pitch count add up."
So Zimmermann attacks his hitters, pitching to contact and daring them to do something with it.
"He was attacking us, and sometimes that's tough to deal with," said Colorado right fielder Seth Smith. "You don't really get a chance to breathe."
But Washington wants to protect its front-line starter, and Zimmermann showed every reason why it should. His fastball regularly hit 95 mph. His slider -- "probably the best it's ever been," he said -- and curveball froze hitters. And with three consecutive losses and an offense that could not get much going against Rockies righty Jhoulys Chacin, he won the duel, making Washington's first run stick while playing stopper.
"He pitches with a lot of passion," said second baseman Danny Espinosa. "For me, I want to be behind a guy who is a bulldog on the mound, and that's what he is. He's going to come after you like, 'This is what I've got.'"
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.