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Posted at 05:02 PM ET, 03/26/2011

Nationals pitching well at the right time

Spring training stats mean very little. We all know that. But performance late in the spring means something. Regulars play longer, starting pitchers go deeper, the bullpen begins to approach the game as it normally would and everyone knows what is coming.

“The last 7-10 days, I take pretty damn serious,” reliever Sean Burnett said. “In a couple days, it’s gonna count. Everybody is going to test themselves.”

And so, the Nationals’ pitching staff recent surge has come at the right time. The Nationals have won five games in a row while allowing seven runs over that span. Today, Livan Hernandez, Collin Balester, Tyler Clippard, Todd Coffey and Sean Burnett combined on a two-hit shutout.

“The main thing is how you’re pitchers are throwing,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “It doesn’t escape you that in all these wins, we’ve allowed less than two runs.”

With their 15th win, the Nationals clinched at least a .500 record for the spring, which means this is the first time since baseball returned to Washington that they will not finish spring training with a losing record. That, most everyone agrees, does not mean much. But their recent performance, especially from the pitching staff, does.

“You want to see guys start to get their game face on,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “This is the time you want to do it. You want to finish up strong as far as the stats go, absolutely. I know of the guys had bad stats this year. But you could say the same thing about Burnett last year, and look how he did.”

McCatty mentioned Clippard and Storen by name as pitchers who have struggled at times this spring. Lately, though, both have been lights-out. Both have not allowed a run in their past two outings.

The entire Nationals’ bullpen has been outstanding lately. Over the last five games, relievers still in the running to make the team — that counts Collin Balester, who is a numbers-game longshot — have yielded two runs in 19 innings. Burnett threw another 1-2-3 ninth today, keeping his spring ERA at 0.00. Burnett has also not walked a single batter in 8 1/3 innings. Balester added two more scoreless inning, too, dropping his spring ERA to 1.59.

Starting yesterday, McCatty treated bullpen usage as if it were the regular season. Typically, in the early stages of spring training, relievers know what days and what innings they will pitch. Now, though, McCatty signals to the bullpen for pitchers to warm up like he would during the season.

“We have, what, three games left?” McCatty said. “That’s the way we’re playing the game, getting ready for the season.”

Spring training stats, again, are often nothing but a mirage. But opening day draws close, the Nationals’ staff appears as ready as it could be.

By  |  05:02 PM ET, 03/26/2011

 
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