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Nationals righty has most impressive outing of spring

Through two games, the Nationals' vaunted pitching staff has been exactly as advertised -- if not better.

After blanking the Marlins in the first two games, the Nationals on Thursday will turn to Jordan Zimmermann for the series finale as they look to join the 1963 Cardinals as the only teams in Major League history to record three consecutive shutouts to start a season. The Marlins, meanwhile, are hoping to avoid becoming the first team ever to be shut out three straight times to start a season.

As it is, the Nats are just the 13th team all-time -- and first since the 2002 D-backs -- to start with back-to-back shutouts. Zimmermann hopes to continue that trend as Washington goes for the season-opening sweep against left-hander Wade LeBlanc and Miami at 4:05 p.m. ET at Nationals Park.

Though often overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann has been as good as almost any pitcher not just on Washington's staff, but in the entire National League over the past two seasons. His 20-19 record during that span is slightly misleading, considering he had a combined 3.05 ERA in 58 starts while posting a 3.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio the last two seasons.

At 26 years old entering this season, the mild-mannered Zimmermann posted career bests last year in wins (12), ERA (2.94), starts (32), innings (195 2/3) and strikeouts (153).

"He looks like he's easygoing, but there's fire in there," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "It comes out once in a while. He doesn't say a whole lot, but when he does, he's right on track. But he's come a long way, too. As a pitcher, the experience comes with learning how the hitters you're up against react to your stuff, and you get a comfort in that, with your pitch selection and your location."

Speaking of comfort, LeBlanc is hoping to quickly settle into his newfound full-time starting role. He made nine starts and 16 relief appearances in his first season with the Marlins, in 2012, after spending the previous four years in the Padres organization, bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation and even the Minor Leagues.

"It's been such a long road to get to this point that it doesn't matter when I'm throwing," said LeBlanc, who went 1-4 with a 4.18 ERA in his nine starts last year. "As long as they think I'm one of the 12 best [pitchers] they have, it doesn't matter where they put me. It feels pretty good."

It'll likely feel even better if his teammates can find a way to break through with some run support and end the shutout streak.

Marlins: Kotchman out with hamstring injury
First baseman Casey Kotchman won't be in the lineup on Thursday after leaving Wednesday's game with a strained left hamstring. The exact extent of the injury is unclear, though a stint on the disabled list is possible.

Kotchman, who was replaced by Greg Dobbs, sustained the injury while attempting to beat out a 1-6-3 double play in the fifth inning. As he reached first base, he stumbled over the bag and immediately reached for the hamstring while falling to the ground.

Dobbs, the likely fill-in candidate during Kotchman's absence, flied out in his lone at-bat.

Nationals: Ramos, Suzuki to continue alternating behind plate
Wilson Ramos figures to be behind the plate for the series finale, though it's not simply because the Nats are playing a day game after Kurt Suzuki caught Wednesday's night game.

Alternating starts between the two catchers is something Johnson plans to continue doing for the time being.

"I've kind of mapped it out to them and told them they're going to just alternate early on," Johnson said. "That's a tribute, because I like them both. They're both great catchers, they both handle the staff very well, both bring a lot to the table. And especially with [Ramos], he's had a great spring coming back from injury. This also gives him a little more time to regroup between starts."

Ramos, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last May, hit .267 with 15 home runs as the everyday catcher in 2011. As for Suzuki, he hit .267 with five homers in 43 games last season after being acquired from the Athletics in an Aug. 3 trade.

Worth noting
• With his 2-for-4 performance on Wednesday night, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper extended his hitting streak to a career-high 11 games, dating back to last season.

• Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton is just 3-for-13 lifetime against Zimmermann, though each of the three hits is a home run. That's tied for the most he has hit off a single pitcher, the other being Livan Hernandez.

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