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Jordan Zimmermann pitched well yesterday but was pulled after six innings.
Three games in, though, the one thing the Nationals haven't had any reason to worry about is the one thing everyone thought they would need to worry about this season: the starting rotation.
Livan Hernandez, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann have combined to post a 2.60 ERA so far, none having allowed more than two earned runs in his season debut.
And those numbers might look even better had Riggleman given his starters a bit more rope and let them pitch deeper into their respective games. Hernandez was pulled with one out in the seventh on Opening Day, despite a pitch count of only 77. Lannan was pulled after only five innings and 68 pitches on Saturday. And Zimmermann departed after six innings and 84 pitches yesterday.
There were extenuating circumstances that called for both Lannan and Zimmermann to removed. Lannan sat through a 55-minute rain delay in the fourth inning, and though he was allowed to return for the fifth, Riggleman and pitching coach Steve McCatty noticed a difference in his stuff during that final inning. So they decided not to take any chances and turn to the bullpen right then.
There were no signs of fatigue from Zimmermann, though, who had retired five of six batters when he was removed during what was at the time a tight, 3-1 game.
The right-hander said the correct things afterward when asked about his removal, though he did indicate he could have continued.
"I felt good," he said. "But you want to hand it over to the bullpen. The bullpen did a great job last year. They just had a little stumble in the road today."
Riggleman subtly explained the real reason Zimmermann was taken out.
"He threw good, and he could have gone back out there a little longer," the manager said. "But we're trying to really look after him. So six innings was enough for him today."
If it wasn't obvious already, it should be now: The Nationals are going to be extremely cautious with Zimmermann, who despite being 100 percent recovered from his August 2009 Tommy John surgery, threw a total of only 70 2/3 innings last year between the minors and majors. He threw exactly 100 innings the previous season before getting hurt and topped out at 134 innings as a minor-leaguer in 2008.
The Nationals, like most teams, don't let their young starters dramatically exceed their previous innings totals. It's pretty clear they intend to limit Zimmermann to 150-160 innings this season. Which means even if he only makes 25 starts, he'll need to be pulled after roughly six innings every time out.
It's the right thing for the organization to do. Zimmermann's ascension to front-line starter is among the Nationals' most important objectives this year. They need him to pitch well, but they also need him to make it through the full season healthy and prepared to increase his workload in 2012.
More importantly, if the rest of the Nationals' rotation continues to pitch the way Hernandez, Lannan and Zimmermann did against the Braves, the club's biggest question mark could prove to be the least of its concerns.