Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez are still the Nationals’ key

brushback_harperA few Nationals players spoke recently about trying to establish an identity this season, referencing one of those words of the sporting vernacular that has been beaten into a state of meaninglessness. Beyond the cliché, though, there is something to the idea of an identity: What can one team offer that others cannot? What separates them, makes them different?

For the Nationals, that still means the ability to send out three starters who, any given day, can be one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Nationals’ identity this season, even as Bryce Harper returns, is the same as last season. They are lucky enough to have Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, when healthy, start 60 percent of their games.

The Nationals’ trio of aces has lately been carrying the Nationals, dragging their offense along when necessary. Zimmermann, who starts tonight, has been a rock all season. Strasburg has returned from the disabled list and has been his overwhelming self. Take away a couple ragged April starts, and Gonzalez has been the same staff leader as last year.

Since the start of May, Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez have combined for a 2.17 ERA over 207 1/3 innings. The Nationals are 20-11 in those 31 starts, which means the Nationals are 8-15 in games those three haven’t started. If you are looking for ammunition for your argument the Nationals need to make a trade to stabilize the back of their rotation, there you go.

“I feel like we give them two or three runs, we can win any ballgame,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “We felt that way all last year, and when we would score five or six, it was just a bonus. A lot of times didn’t even need them. Keep everybody healthy, and if we score two, three or four, we’re in good shape.”

Considering the struggles of the Nationals’ offense and the starters at the back of their rotation, the question isn’t how the Nationals have overachieved. It’s how they managed to keep their head above water. The answer, mainly, is Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez.

“You look at what they’ve done and what we’ve done and where we’re at, it could be a lot worse,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Gonzalez in particular has come on lately. A pile of hard-luck losses and no-decisions obscured his surge, but he has been one of the best starters in baseball for two months. Opponents have hit .171 against him over his last 11 starts. Teammates have noticed Gonzalez, still only 27, gaining composure as the season moves along.

“He’s starting to learn how to harness that a little bit,” Zimmerman said. “That’s part of what makes him so good and what gets him in trouble sometimes. You can’t tell him not to do it, because that’s part of who he is and why he’s so good, because he cares so much. He’s just got to learn to take a breath when things start to not go his way.

“Obviously, Gio has got the stuff. He proved last year to be one of the best pitchers in the league. We say it about Stras all the time, but Gio is that good, too. The stuff he has and what he’s already done in the game, it’s kind of hard to think he can be even better.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals finished the first half with a 13-2 thrashing of the Mets behind Gio Gonzalez and their best offensive output of the season.

On Sunday, Mike Wise examined whether or not Davey will wear out his welcome again.

Also Sunday, Sheinin wrote about the rebirth of baseball in Ward 7. If you read anything today, make it that one.

Sheinin also has a profile of the amazing Chris Davis.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Haren encouraged

Harper coming back

Detwiler on track

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 2, Rochester 0: Caleb Clay allowed no runs over six innings on three hits and three walks, striking out three. Michael Crotta struck out one and allowed a hit in 1 1/3 innings for his second save. Zach Walters went 2 for 3 with a double.

Harrisburg was postponed.

Potomac was postponed.

Hagerstown 2, Lexington 1: Brett Mooneyham allowed no runs in six innings on five hits and a walk, striking out two. Estarlin Martinez went 1 for 2. Craig Manuel went 1 for 2.

Lexington 11, Hagerstown 1: Tony Renda went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Dixon Anderson allowed four earned runs on 3 2/3 innings on six hits and one walk, striking out three.

Jamestown 6, Auburn 5: Bryan Lippincott went 2 for 5 with a double and a walk. Jimmy Yezzo went 4 for 6. Wilman Rodriguez went 2 for 4 with a double. Deion Williams allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings on five hits and no walks, striking out zero.

Also on Nationals Journal

Dan Haren may have been more hurt than he thought