That’s why the Nationals are entirely different this season — different as entertainment, as consistent competitors in almost every game and different as potential contenders for the playoffs or the National League East division title or, eventually, the World Series. Their rotation makes them brand-new.
If all this makes your head ache with disorientation, you’re entitled to your confusion. Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, no starter has won more than 10 games. And the three of those with 10 wins had losing records. In ’09, only one Nats starter had more than five wins — f-i-v-e. It wasn’t a rotation; it was a swirling toilet bowl. How could you invite friends to watch such a mess?
In the recent past, the Nats’ rotation was prima facie evidence that the team’s management owed its fan base a public apology. That’s now gone.
In baseball, the pitching matchup defines the nature of the game we’ll see more than the identity of the teams themselves. The name on the back of the pitcher’s jersey matters more than the logo of the city that’s on the front.
Proof: In 1972, when Steve Carlton pitched, the Phillies went 29-12, a better winning percentage than that season’s World Series champion. When Carlton didn’t pitch, Philadelphia was 30-85, one of the worst teams ever seen.
Finally, in their big three (plus Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler
and Chien-Ming Wang when he returns from an injured hamstring) the Nats have names on the back of their uniforms that will make opposing hitters wonder, “Are we really playing the Nats? My batting average aches.”
Double-digit wins are where these guys assume they will start. The towering Wang won 19 games twice as a Yankee. He’s not back there yet. Quite. But he’s closer than 29 teams ever thought he’d be with a dozen pins and screws in his shoulder. The 30th team was the Nats. If GM Mike Rizzo’s two-year wait-and-see pans out, it’ll be one of the season’s best stories.
The four-for-one trade for Gonzalez, 16-12 last year and 15-9 the previous year, demonstrated that the Nats are committed to a winning team right now. In spring training, Gonzalez had baseball’s fourth-best strikeout-per-inning ratio, right behind Roy Halladay. Many Nats fans are in for a surprise. “Gio just has embarrassing stuff,” reliever Drew Storen says.
With their free agent contract to Jackson, the Nats showed that they understood a tricky baseball truth: You never know what year might be your lucky season. That one-year, $11 million deal was an insurance policy. Last year was typical of Jackson’s last four with a 12-9 record, 200 innings, a 3.79 ERA and, for the second time in four years, a starting assignment in the World Series. If this turns into a lucky year, then even after Strasburg is shut down after 160 innings, the Nats are still deep enough to dream.