ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays seemed to have been waiting for Jordan Zimmermann to leave the game Saturday at Tropicana Field.

The Nationals' rookie starter, pitching for the first time in 10 days after missing a start because of minor right elbow soreness, held the defending American League champions in check for the first five innings of Washington's 8-3 loss.

The trouble was, as well as Zimmermann pitched during those five innings, it was only five innings. When his pitch count reached 92 at the end of five, manager Manny Acta turned to his bullpen to protect a 2-1 lead.

"He was at 92 pitches, and he wasn't going to go more than 95," Acta said. "We just skipped him one outing because of his arm fatigue, and we've got to take care of this kid."

Zimmermann's lead held up for only three batters once he was gone. Reliever Jason Bergmann gave up consecutive singles to Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena (who bunted for a hit against Washington's defensive shift), and Ben Zobrist put Tampa Bay ahead with his career-best 13th home run.

The Rays weren't done with Bergmann, either. After Pat Burrell walked, Gabe Gross hit his fourth homer to extend the Rays' lead to 6-2.

Bergmann left after five batters without recording an out.

"They were all sinkers, the hits," Bergmann said. "The home runs were sinkers. It was a pitch where I wasn't on top of them today. It's something where I really need to get through the ball and power through it, and I kind of let up on it just a little bit to make sure it was a strike. I've been pitching real aggressively of late, and I think I just wanted to make a strike instead of making a good pitch. And it hurt me."

Jesus Colome, who broke in with the Rays in 2001 and pitched for Tampa Bay until '06, replaced Bergmann and gave up three more hits in the inning, including a two-run double by Longoria.

The seven-run inning broke open what had been a close game.

"It was a huge inning for them," Acta said. "Obviously, we didn't make very good pitches there, and they took advantage of it and had the big inning. Usually, you win or lose a ballgame in one inning, and we did right there."

The big inning also ruined an otherwise-encouraging outing for Zimmermann, Washington's top pitching prospect and one of the key components in the Nationals' rebuilding process. He said the elbow issue that prompted the team to scratch him in his scheduled start Tuesday against the Reds was not an issue Saturday.

Zimmermann's day began with an error by first baseman Nick Johnson, who booted B.J. Upton's ground ball in the first. Carl Crawford then walked, creating the very scenario the Nationals had hoped to avoid during this three-game series -- the AL's best base-stealing duo on base at the same time.

Zimmermann responded to the early adversity by striking out Longoria, Pena and Zobrist in order.

"I knew it was going to be tough," said Zimmermann. "I was trying to get a ground ball. Longoria chased a slider out of the zone, and Pena came up. I just had to make some quality pitches and trying to get ground balls. Fortunately, they weren't hitting it and I ended up getting strikeouts. When you're in tough situations like that, you've got to dig deep and pull everything out to get out of it."

By then, he already had a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Ryan Zimmerman's 12th home run in the top of the inning off Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine. The Nationals added a run in the third when Anderson Hernandez led off with a bunt single and later scored on a ground ball by Zimmerman.

Pena's 20th home run led off the fourth, but Zimmermann responded to that brief setback by catching Zobrist with a called third strike. In the fifth, Zimmermann showed off his wheel-and-throw pickoff move to second when he made a perfect throw to shortstop Cristian Guzman to catch Upton napping for the second out of the inning.

The loss was a discouraging way to close out an emotional day for the Nationals.

It started with news of the death of outfielder Josh Willingham's younger brother, Jon, in a car accident early Saturday morning in Florence, Ala.

By mid-afternoon, speculation about Acta's future with the club had reached a heightened state in the wake of a FOXSports.com report that the Nationals had decided to replace Acta with bench coach Jim Riggleman, a report that two team sources denied.

Acta, whose day began with a meeting to inform his players of Willingham's tragic loss, was asked in the postgame news conference about the speculation concerning his job.

"I don't listen, I don't read what's said about me," Acta said. "And if I do spend my whole time reading, answering what's said about me, I wouldn't have enough time to manage this club. I can't control that. All I can do is get these guys ready to play every day and show up to work with the same attitude."