HOUSTON -- Jordan Zimmermann didn't just get back on track Thursday night. He made it look easy.
Depending on who you ask, he may have even looked like a National League Cy Young Award front-runner.
Zimmermann gave up four earned runs in five innings his last time out, snapping an impressive run of dominant outings. He restarted that streak against Houston, tying a career high with 11 strikeouts and allowing only three hits over six scoreless innings as the Nationals completed a four-game sweep of the Astros, their fifth road series sweep of the season, with a 5-0 win at Minute Maid Park.
The Braves were idle, so the Nats' win -- their sixth in a row -- pushed their NL East lead to 4 1/2 games behind Zimmermann's most dominant start of the season.
"I missed on a few, but it was definitely better than the last start," Zimmermann said. "I definitely wanted to come out and have a good start after that last one."
"That's him," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Very dominant. Overpowered them."
Zimmermann was in control from the start, posting his third career double-digit strikeout game. He has made 14 starts this season in which he allowed one earned run or fewer, and he lowered his ERA to 2.35, second in the NL behind only the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong (2.27) and third in the Majors behind the Angels' Jered Weaver (2.13) and Vogelsong.
His nine wins might steer away voters who look at the more traditional statistics, but Zimmermann is quietly making a case for himself to be considered for the NL Cy Young Award.
"I feel like I have a pretty good season going right now," Zimmermann said. "I just want to finish strong and not fall off toward the end, and I guess whatever awards are out there, hopefully I get mentioned in some of them. But the main goal right now is to make the playoffs."
"Sure, he belongs in the conversation. He's throwing the ball outstanding," added Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty. "I'd match his stuff up with pretty much everybody else. I think everybody else would probably be pretty happy to have him on their team.
"He competes. He doesn't care. He's not afraid. He comes after you. And he does what he does, and he doesn't change. It's not like he's a plodder, but he's a plodder. More like a racehorse, a thoroughbred. That's what he is. That's what you love about him. ... Jordan's been super."
Zimmermann threw only six innings, relying primarily on his fastball and slider, but he said he had more in the tank, tossing only 87 pitches. Johnson wants to remain cautious with the right-hander, who is dealing with some soreness in his right shoulder while warming up. He struck out the side twice and allowed only two runners to reach second base, both of them on doubles. Washington didn't allow a Houston player to reach third base all night.
"He can throw everything in every count, really," said Astros third baseman Brett Wallace. "He's not one of those guys that's tiptoeing around guys or out of the zone. He's in the zone. He's coming at you."
The end result was the same, but Thursday's game was a stark contrast from Washington's first three nights at Minute Maid Park. After three nail-biters, two of which stretched into extra innings, the series finale was a laugher by comparison.
Zimmermann and Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell went back and forth with three scoreless innings before the Nationals broke through with two runs in the fourth, on Adam LaRoche's broken-bat RBI single and a sacrifice fly by Michael Morse.
Morse added another run in the sixth, hammering a 1-0 pitch from reliever Mickey Storey to deep left field. Morse's shot clanged off one of the signs hanging in front of Minute Maid Park's train tracks, clearing the left-field fence by about 40 feet, and would have been heading for the windows had it not been stopped there.
"That was a good one. It was good," said Morse, who was reminded that he hit one to the train tracks here last season. "Yeah. That was a good one."
Morse wasn't done there, either. He crushed another solo homer in the eighth, this one to right-center field, to notch his fourth career multi-homer game. Johnson said the big outfielder has recently looked the same way he did last year, sitting on breaking balls and attacking fastballs.
Morse's bombs helped power the Nationals into a stretch against a little stiffer competition, six games out west against the D-backs and Giants. But more importantly, Washington took care of business against five straight opponents with sub-.500 records, taking 13 of 17 from the Mets, Brewers, Phillies, Marlins and Astros dating back to July 23, even if they had to sweat out the first three in Houston.
"You've got to do that. All good teams do that, and we did it here," Johnson said. "People can say we were flat coming in here. No, we weren't flat. Those guys got some talent over there, too, and they battled us every at-bat, and this is a ballpark anything can happen in. I was proud of our guys this series. It wasn't flat to me. We battled from the get-go."