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NYM@WSH: LaRoche laces a two-run homer to left-center

WASHINGTON -- With each passing start, Jordan Zimmermann is proving the Nationals have more than just two lights-out starters atop their rotation.

Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are the All-Stars, but Zimmermann sports the team's lowest ERA (2.35) and its most innings pitched (122 1/3). Wednesday night at Nationals Park, the 26-year-old right-hander threw six sterling innings, sending the Mets to their sixth straight loss in a 4-3 win. Zimmermann allowed no runs on four hits with four strikeouts and no walks.

"He's a man out there," manager Davey Johnson said. "There's no doubt about it. He has a great presence; he knows what he wants to do. There's no muss, no fuss. It's 'Here, hit it.' He goes right after them."

Zimmermann allowed only two Mets to reach second base, and only one made it to third. That was his opponent on the mound, right-hander Chris Young, who led off the sixth with a double to left field and advanced to third on a groundout two batters later. Zimmermann downed the next three batters, stifling the biggest threat he faced all night.

"They have the best pitching in the league," Mets manager Terry Collins said of the Nats' rotation. "You've just got to continue to try to battle it out."

Young also had a fair outing, pitching six innings and allowing two runs on six hits. He struck out two Nats batters and walked one. But Zimmermann, whose ERA has fallen after each of his last six starts since reaching its season-high of 2.92 on June 16, appears to be growing stronger as the season stretches on.

"That's a big thing for me," Zimmermann said. "I want to finish the season strong, not just the first half. So far, so good. I want to keep getting stronger as the year goes on."

At 7-6, Zimmermann's record would normally suggest a poor season to date. But Zimmermann entered the game tied with Edwin Jackson as the Nats starter who receives the least run support per game (3.9). Thus, Zimmermann is better judged by his team-high 17 quality starts, including a stretch of nine straight dating back to June 5 against the Mets.

For the first five innings, it looked as though Zimmermann might endure another outing with insufficient run support. But the Nationals came alive in the sixth, as Bryce Harper squeaked out an infield single and scored two batters later when Adam LaRoche homered to left-center. LaRoche's 16th homer of the season put the Nats ahead, 2-0, a lead they never relinquished.

"We've been rough on [Zimmermann], we've had some opportunities a lot, and haven't got guys in," LaRoche said. "We go out and score two or three runs and we look up in the eighth inning, and we're winning the ballgame. It's just over and over, those guys are picking us up."

In the seventh, a pair of two-out singles put runners on first and second for Steve Lombardozzi. Playing at second base for the fourth straight game due to the infield shuffling required by Ian Desmond's left oblique strain, Lombardozzi notched an RBI double when he ripped 2-0 pitch from Mets reliever Miguel Batista off the right-field wall. Jesus Flores and Roger Bernadina both scored, giving the Nats two insurance runs that ultimately proved necessary.

Sean Burnett came on for the eighth and allowed only a one-out double. In the ninth, Tyler Clippard entered looking for redemption after blowing his first save Tuesday after taking over the closer's role in late May. But on his first pitch, a 93-mph fastball, David Wright launched a solo home run to right-center. Suddenly, a seemingly comfortable three-run lead had evaporated.

But Clippard's struggles weren't done, when after striking out the next two Mets, Jason Bay jumped on the first pitch he saw and drilled another four-seam fastball from Clippard off the left-field foul pole. The Nats' lead shrunk to 4-3, and though Clippard was able to keep it there, there might be some cause for concern. Drew Storen has been working to return from mid-April surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow and could be activated from the disabled list as early as Thursday.

"[Clippard's] had a lot of work lately," Johnson said. "But his velocity is still up there. A couple pretty good hitters looking for a fastball, cheat, jump ... he got bushwhacked."

Nevertheless, another brilliant start from Zimmermann provided the Nats' bullpen some margin for error. In his second full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann has emerged as perhaps the Nationals' most reliable, durable starter.

"I definitely feel stronger having another year after surgery," Zimmermann said. "Last year was hit or miss, how I was gonna feel. But so far this whole year, I've been feeling great. I haven't had any aches or pains so, knock on wood, it keeps going."

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