The Nats’ third nettlesome problem — the bullpen — might have been solved already. During the first two weeks, Soriano’s sliders and Clippard’s change-ups were AWOL. On Wednesday, both pitches reappeared with Soriano fanning back-to-back hitters on sliders diving below the knees.
Long-term concerns over the Nats’ bullpen simply deny logic. Other problems may be real, but not this one. Here are the career ERAs of Drew Storen, Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen in their years as Nats relievers: 2.95, 2.90, 2.89 and 2.95. Soriano’s career mark is 2.81 and was 2.26 last year. Such long-term track records obliterate April blips.
A team’s poise, or lack of it, often starts with its bullpen and defense. When those are shaky, everybody gets the jitters. That was the Nats’ undoing in the ’12 playoffs, and it was the source of their rattled three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves. When a 4-1 eight-inning lead was blown last Friday, the improved Braves grabbed their opportunity.
Soon, the Nats will probably face their toughest extended schedule of the whole season. Starting next Monday, the Nats will play 25 of 38 games against some of the tougher teams in the game: the Reds, Braves, Cardinals, Tigers, Dodgers and Orioles. At such times, the key to most teams’ fates is their starting rotations.
Amid the countervailing trend of these early weeks, that still seems to be the Nationals’ strongest suit. And it may now be stronger than ever. Have the Nats found a new star in southpaw Ross Detwiler? He has been gaining momentun since the second half of last season. Now the pattern is too clear to miss.
Over his past 256.1 innings, including his stellar playoff start, Detwiler has a 3.09 ERA. That compares to Stephen Strasburg’s career mark of 2.94, Gio Gonzalez combined 3.12 since the beginning of ’10 and Jordan Zimmermann’s 3.02 since the beginning of ’11. As long as they stay healthy, if you have four starters that good, what else really matters?
At the moment, Detwiler is one of the few pitchers anybody can remember who can have a 0.90 ERA while throwing 90 percent fastballs and sinkers — hard and harder. In his win Wednesday night, 75 percent of his pitches were strikes. With each of his starts this season, his average fastball velocity, rounded off, has actually gone up from 92 to 93 to 94. In beating Miami, he touched 96.6 mph. Easy gas, indeed.
The Nats are fortunate to be 9-6. The left side of the infield has been scary bad on defense with nine errors. They’re running the bases, at times, like their heads were cut off. The Braves clobbered Gonzalez. Yet they’re intact.
In some sports, 15 games is almost an entire season. In baseball, we’ve just heard the overture. Now the music starts to build.
For more by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.