It's often dangerous trying to read too much into a pitcher's first inning on the mound. Some guys might retire the side in short order, then get rocked later. Others may struggle to find their rhythm early but then sort things out and cruise.
But when Jordan Zimmermann walked back to the Nationals dugout after a 1-2-3, 9-pitch top of the first Friday, Davey Johnson didn't need to see anything more. He knew what the right-hander had in store for the rest of the night.
"You could tell from the first pitch of the ballgame," Johnson said. "Zim wasn't going to be denied."
With perhaps the best "stuff" he's ever had in a big-league start — including a mid-90s fastball and an upper-80s slider that actually reached 90 mph once — Zimmermann was dialed in from pitch No. 1 through No. 107. In between, the only things he allowed to the Marlins were two singles and a walk.
So by the time he departed the mound after notching the second shutout both of his season and his career, Zimmermann had earned his league-leading 19th win of the season and the Nationals had earned their 12th win in 14 games, this one by the lopsided count of 8-0.
At which point Zimmermann and the rest of his teammates retreated to their clubhouse to watch a stunning finish in Pittsburgh, where the Reds (down to their final out) took advantage of an error to score three times in the ninth and then won in the 10th, producing some audible cursing from various Nationals.
That turn of events prevented the Nationals from gaining any ground in the NL Wild Card race. They now find themselves trailing both the Pirates and Reds by 5 games with 8 to play.
"We're not mathematically out of it yet," Zimmermann said. "You've got to keep fighting til the end, and hopefully one of these other two teams tank."
At this point, that's the Nationals' last hope. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh face each other five more times. Who should the Nats root for? Whoever wins Saturday.
"You know what? We're fans of whoever can sweep another team," center fielder Denard Span said. "Hopefully, Cincinnati, if they want to sweep Pittsburgh, yeah, we're rooting for Cincinnati. Or visa versa."
The only thing the Nationals could control Friday night was the result of their own game. And Zimmermann pretty much took care of that himself. He retired the first 11 batters he faced, seven of them via strikeout, and carried a no-hitter into the sixth until Donovan Solano lined a clean single over shortstop Ian Desmond's head.
Zimmermann's dominance, though, would have gone for naught unless the Nationals scored at least one run of their own, which they had been unable to do through five innings against Miami right-hander Jacob Turner.
And then they finally got to Turner in the bottom of the sixth and scored a run. And then another. And then five more for good measure, sending 11 men to the plate during a 7-run thrashing of the Marlins' 22-year-old hurler.
"Maybe he just ran out of gas," said Jayson Werth, who delivered a two-run double during the rally. "It seems like his stuff kinda flattened out."
While Turner's stuff was flattening out, Zimmermann's stuff was only getting sharper. The 27-year-old took that 7-run lead and never even gave the Marlins a chance to consider a comeback. He mowed them down in order in the seventh, then again in the eighth, his pitch count still relatively low at 92.
The pitcher's spot was due up second in the bottom of the eighth, but Johnson didn't have to think twice. And Zimmermann didn't have to be told to grab his bat.
"I told [pitching coach Steve McCatty]: 'Don't talk to him,'" Johnson said. "Cause I know him. He wanted to finish that ballgame."
The crowd of 34,752 gave Zimmermann a standing ovation as he stepped to the plate — "They got pretty loud," he said, "and that's great" — and they serenaded him again when he took the mound for the top of the ninth, seeking his second 1-hitter of the season.
Zimmermann didn't quite pull that one off, allowing a two-out single to Chris Coghlan. But he got Giancarlo Stanton to ground to the right side for his 27th out, capping a brilliant performance that left teammates in awe.
"After that first inning, when he struck out two out of three, you could tell," second baseman Anthony Rendon said. "He always goes after hitters, but there was something different about him tonight."
"It looked like a fastball, and then it would slurve away," Span said of his view from center field. "He was buckling me out there. He had everything going tonight, for sure."
Zimmermann is scheduled to make one more start during the regular season, Wednesday in St. Louis. If he's victorious, he'll wind up as the NL's only 20-game winner in 2013, though at this point his chances of getting Cy Young Award votes are barely mentioned.
"I think they get a lot better if we make it to the postseason," Werth said.
For that to happen, the Nationals are going to need to keep winning games at this rate for another eight days. And they're going to need the loser of tomorrow night's game in Pittsburgh to keep losing many more times down the stretch of a September that has become wholly unpredictable.