However, as the Birds came to bat, they also saw another recurring sight. All that exceptional pitching rarely gives the Nats more than a tiny margin for error. Their lead was as small as the rules allow, 1-0. More times than not, the first-place Nats, 41-29 after going 18-14 in 32 straight games against AL East and NL East teams, have held on to win.
But sometimes they crack. Or get smashed. This time, lefty Sean Burnett, a symbol of all the Nats pitchers who have done more than expected, who’ve stepped into new roles or simply pitched better than they ever had before, did not have the right answer. A single by Adam Jones and a homer by Matt Wieters, both likely all-stars, were enough for a 2-1 Baltimore win in the rubber game of a series that had a total score of 5-5.
Such series come and go, even between Beltway rivals. But the theme of the Nats’ season has become one of the most powerful in baseball: an incredibly deep, competitive pitching staff, young but devoid of self-pity, has ignored its team’s offensive problems and kept the Nats atop the NL East on the strength of arms and defense.
How good are they? Or, at least, how amazing have they been so far?
ERA+ is the best single statistic for measuring the excellence of a team’s pitching staff. It adjusts for the run-scoring levels of different eras and also factors in the influence of a team’s home ballpark. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good. And it seldom lies. The Nats’ current ERA+ is 135, which means, adjusted for fairly neutral Nats Park, they are 35 percent better than the major league norm in 2012. Where does that stand?
If the Nats maintain their current pace, they would have the second-best ERA+ in more than 100 years, second only to the 1926 Philadelphia A’s led by Hall of Famer Lefty Grove and 247-game winner Jack Quinn. The other teams in the top half-dozen over the last century (excluding World War II years) are the ’39 Yankees (Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez); the ’97 and ’02 Braves of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz; and the ’54 Indians with Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser (all Hall of Famers), and relievers Don Mossi and Ray Narleski. Talk about being in good company. (For the record, the Cubs of 1906 were the best since 1901.)
“We plan on doing this the whole year,” GM Mike Rizzo said after he was told his staff might have a chance to rank among the best ever.
As irony would have it, the Nats’ next four games are in Colorado, the worst pitchers park in generations. But after that, sanity should return.