Starting pitching is the backbone of the Nationals. It is what carried the team to a division title in 2012 despite injuries to key players and kept the team afloat when the offense struggled mightily in the first half of 2013. Through 14 games this season, however, Washington’s starting pitching has been inconsistent.
Nationals starters have a 5.06 ERA, fifth highest in the majors. They have a 1.49 WHIP, the sixth highest total in the majors. They have logged only 74 2/3 innings, the equivalent of only 5 1/3 innings per start, the third lowest rate in baseball, which has been taxing the bullpen. The Nationals are 8-6 because the offense has mounted comebacks when the pitching struggled early.
“I think it’s important for us to be able to pitch the first inning and be ready to compete in the first inning,” Manager Matt Williams said. “The struggles with the starters have been early. So once they’ve gotten into games, generally, they’ve been able to settle down and pitch. It’s been early issues. So it’s important for us to be ready …. It’s been difficult early on, not in every game, but in some games when the starters have given up early runs and we’re behind. You can come back in some of them, but it’s tough to come back in all of them.”
The Nationals are last in the majors with an 11.57 ERA in the first inning and 9.64 ERA in the second inning so far this season.
Stephen Strasburg’s Tuesday start against the Marlins was another example of the early inconsistency of the starting rotation. Jordan Zimmermann fired seven strong innings on Monday after Gio Gonzalez struggled on Sunday. Coming off a dominant start last week against the Marlins, Strasburg seemed poised to fire a solid start. Instead, he coughed up six runs on eight hits and walked three in four innings. He allowed all six runs in the first two innings.
Strasburg has been brilliant against the Marlins at times but also produced some of the worst starts of his career against them. He now has a 4.17 ERA in 16 starts against Miami, his worst mark against any division opponent. He has struggled most often in Miami, too. He has a career 8.61 ERA at Marlins Park.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “Everybody’s got their places and stuff. I said it’s all going to work itself out. Pitched enough times here it’s going to even itself out.”
The numbers should be taken with a grain of salt because a good or bad start could sway ERA either way this early, but the Nationals starters’ totals aren’t pretty. Strasburg has a 6.00 ERA in four starts. Zimmermann has a 5.27 ERA in three starts. Gonzalez has a team-best 3.50 ERA in three starts. Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark each have made only two starts but have a 4.76 and 5.91 ERA respectively.
“They’re good pitchers,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Obviously they’re not perfect. Something we’ll deal with. It’s not anything anybody in here is worried about. We know what they’re capable of and just move on. Offense has to do better, too.”
Two weeks in a six-month season is a relatively short amount of time, only a blip in the course of the entire season. The Nationals are confident they can overcome this early hiccup, and Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermman certainly have the track records to prove it.
“We’ve had some dominant years in the past and teams are constantly trying to adjust on us,” Strasburg said. “It’s our turn to adjust on them. [The Marlins have] got a lot of young, good pitchers there. Everybody’s stepping up their game to face us. It’s our job to get to work and get back on track. I’m not really worried about it. We’re swinging the bat really well, consistently here. As long as we can minimize the damage a little bit we’ll be okay.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES