The one positive for Cilic, however, is that sole victory happened to be a 6-1, 6-3 trouncing in Beijing, their only previous meeting in Chinese territory, holding some hope for the Croat in Shanghai come Saturday's semi.
The two friends headed into a deciding set with Dimitrov in the ascendancy and the pro-Nadal crowd fearing an upset.
Earlier, Marin Cilic, ranked fourth, showed the exit to the American Steve Johnson 7-6 (1), 6-4.
Dimitrov battled hard in the final set but Nadal was keen to avoid going the distance once more and took the final set 6-3.
Nadal served out the set and had a chance to gain the upper hand in the second, but Dimitrov saved a break point before taking a 3-2 lead and the pumped-up sixth seed clenched his fist upon winning his next service game.
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"I think he played a great match, maybe one of the best of the season", Zverev said. I have to try to keep focus and hold that momentum.
Dimitrov raced in to unleash a backhand victor for a break point in the fourth game of the final set, but Nadal thwarted him again and claimed the decisive break to lead 4-2 before sealing yet another win.
Roger Federer, second-seeded behind Nadal, is also disposed quickly of the qualified Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-4, 6-2.
The 36-year-old broke the world number 41 in the first game before saving a break point in the tenth to seal the opening set 6-4.
"I was a little bit angry with myself just with not keeping up the good tennis at that moment", Cilic said.