Minus Strasburg, righty will be relied upon more

The Nationals are prepared to lose one ace later this season. Stephen Strasburg will not be pitching in late September or -- if it comes to that -- the postseason. The decision has been made, and general manager Mike Rizzo has said repeatedly he is not changing it.

Management is comfortable with that move, however, in part because it believes the starting pitching behind Strasburg remains good enough to harbor realistic playoff hopes anyway. But that does put an extra load of pressure on Jordan Zimmermann, the quiet Wisconsin native who in some ways has been better than even Strasburg this season.

That's because -- three years removed from his own Tommy John surgery -- Zimmermann is finally pitching his first full big league season. He was diagnosed with an elbow ligament tear in July 2009, returned in the second half of the 2010 season and pitched 1611Ú3 innings last year on a restricted basis. As they will with Strasburg, the Nats grabbed the ball from Zimmermann in late August and told him to take a seat.

If things go well in his start Thursday against the Houston Astros, Zimmermann could surpass 145 innings this season. He will go a lot more than that, likely coming close to 200 innings by the end of the regular season -- the goal for any pitcher who considers himself durable -- with another 25 to 30 needed in the playoffs if Washington hopes to win a title.

"I want to finish the season strong -- not just the first half," Zimmermann said. "So far, so good."

Zimmermann has been remarkably consistent. Until Saturday's start at home against Miami, he had completed six innings of work every time out. He lasted just five against the Marlins and gave up four runs, though seemed unconcerned afterward given the number of broken-bat hits and misplays behind him. Zimmermann is 8-6 thanks to limited run support from his teammates but has a 2.45 ERA -- only the Los Angeles Angels' Jered Weaver and San Francisco's Ryan Vogelsong have done better -- and a 1.08 walks-plus-hits per inning ratio.

"Jordan Zimmermann's kind of gone under the radar but not our radar," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "He's always been well thought of as a capable No. 1 starter, and he threw a great ball last year. He's been very consistent, and he's a notch better this year."

That includes finishing games stronger. Too often last season Zimmermann would cruise through five or six innings before hitting a rough spot in the sixth or seventh. He has said he feels stronger this season, though there is some concern about his right arm.

Zimmermann had his most recent start pushed back one day thanks to lingering shoulder soreness, and he took medication last week to reduce some inflammation. That hasn't resulted in worse results on the field. His velocity has held up, and Zimmermann said he felt fine after throwing 96 pitches Saturday. But it still bears watching. Washington might be able to get by without one ace in Strasburg, but losing two is a completely different story.