"But I guess that's the way it works. When your bullpen is bad, you usually have a good game," Zimmermann said. "When you have a good bullpen, sometimes there are bad games."
Zimmermann (5-2) retired the first 16 hitters he faced and recorded seven strikeouts before Alexi Amarista singled to right field to record the Padres' first hit. Zimmermann allowed two hits in the game and struck out a career-high 12 batters.
The Nationals improved their record to 32-29 and are now tied with the Braves atop the National League East, one percentage point ahead of the Marlins.
Zimmermann is the second pitcher in franchise history and the first since Jeff Fassero on June 29, 1996, to pitch a complete game shutout during which he allowed two or fewer hits and struck out 11 or more batters. Zimmermann is the first Major League pitcher to accomplish this feat since Shelby Miller did so against the Rockies on May 10 of last year after he allowed just one hit and struck out 13.
"For the most part he was down in the zone, painting corner to corner," Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "He commands the ball so well, gets ahead of guys really quick. We couldn't really put any good swings on him."
At no point during the game was Zimmermann thinking about pitching a no-hitter. He said it's tough to pull it off.
"I give up a hit an inning, so they are going to get a hit at some point," he said. "It was fun putting up the zeros. The main thing was to go deep and win the ballgame."
Zimmermann said it helped that the team was able to score runs for him early and it helped him relax on the mound.
"I got a lot of strikeouts today, which means my fastball is pretty good," Zimmermann said. "I was able to locate it pretty good. For the most part, I was throwing strikes and let the guys behind me play defense."
Nationals starters have a 1.20 ERA in their last six starts with 44 strikeouts and one walk. The one walk was allowed by Zimmermann in his last start.
"It's good. Today helps our bullpen. They have been taxed until now," manager Matt Williams said. "Jordan has the ability to save your bullpen."
Zimmermann got run support early and often against left-hander Eric Stults. Denard Span led off the first inning with a double, stole third and then came home on a groundout by Kevin Frandsen to make it 1-0.
Washington added two more runs in the following inning. After Ryan Zimmerman singled to left field, Ian Desmond homered over the center-field fence to make it 3-0. It was Desmond's team-leading 13th home run of the season.
How do you explain Desmond's power of late? Desmond is allowing himself to hit the ball to the entire field.
"His power has been to the middle of the diamond, certainly his last two homers," Williams said. "He has the ability to hit it out anywhere he wants to. But that creates a good swing path. He is just staying in the middle of the diamond, working hard on that during batting practice."
In the next inning, Washington added three runs. Danny Espinosa highlighted the scoring with a two-run single off reliever Tim Stauffer. The runs were charged to Stults, who lasted 2 1/3 innings and allowed the six runs on eight hits.
Frandsen likes the way the Nationals are able to put the past behind them. On Saturday, Washington lost a heartbreaker, 4-3, to San Diego. It was a different story Sunday.
"Last night was last night," Frandsen said. "I felt the approach against a guy like Stults -- he is someone you can get really big against, someone you could try to like because you see him so well. But then he will run a ball off the plate. Next thing you know, you are chasing. I felt like he was throwing strikes, we hit the ball hard and the guys were aggressive in the zone."
The Nationals next play an important series in San Francisco against the Giants, who have the best record in baseball.
"[The Giants] are doing things really well," Williams said. "They went into today 20 games over .500. Pretty good season they are having. We hope to play well there and win some of those games. We'll take tomorrow first and see if we could win that one."