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For Washington Nationals' real fans, September call-ups hold much promise

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So, when you're making out that '12 lineup, include Desmond, Espinosa, Ramos, that guy Ryan Zimmerman, and, after a season of consistent improvement, Bernadina, too. And remember that Harper will be as old on opening day 2012 as Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. were when they got their jobs for good.

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As soon as we've glimpsed Ramos and Espinosa, next week, Yunesky Maya, the expatriate star of the Cuban national team, will make his big league debut for the Nats. The 29-year-old right-hander, who should be in his prime, is expected to be in the Washington rotation for years, starting now. Since Maya has only started three minor league games, how can the Nats be so sure?

Are all the new Nats scouts who arrived last winter correct in analyzing the talents of Ramos, Espinosa and Maya? Has the Rizzo brain trust got it right? We're about to start finding out. This trio is not "penciled into" the Nats' future. Their names are written in ink. They will have to erase themselves.

If the Nats are lucky, we are about to get a look at their three most talented starters who are not named Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann, now back throwing 94 mph after his own Tommy John surgery, had the best performance of his young career Tuesday night - six innings, one hit, no runs and a career-high nine strikeouts. Lefty Ross Detwiler, the No. 6 overall pick in the '07 draft, also will join Maya on the mound this month.

How on earth will there be enough room for them all, as well as John Lannan and Jason Marquis, who are finally pitching decently, as well as Scott Olsen and Livan Hernandez? In some games, the Nats may piggyback two starting pitchers, spring training style, with one going four innings and the other three.

Remember, as you watch this month, that the Nats are finally able to make distinctions among their starting pitchers that they could never imagine in the Mike-Bacsik past. It may be reassuring to have four pitchers in Lannan, Hernndez, Marquis and Olsen who have all had multiple 190-inning-plus seasons. But all four have something else in common: career ERA's of 4.13, 4.39, 4.56 and 4.78, respectively. The current National League norm is 4.08.

The days when the Nats sought "innings eaters," a euphemism for below-average pitchers who helped avoid a horrid record, may finally be past. Now, they want ERAs that start with "3," not "4." Zimmermann, Maya and Detwiler are going to get every chance to show that they can be in the former category.

"A few days ago, we ranked dead last in 'six-inning starts.' We were first in 'most different starters,' " said President Stan Kasten, his staff saved from disaster by Hernndez alone. "That's a burden on the manager, the bullpen. You're in constant danger of being in disarray. I don't know how we've got 57 wins.

"But this rotation could get fixed really easily, really quickly."

If Strasburg had never missed a start all season, he'd be hitting his innings limit now and the Nats' season-ending discussion would be exactly what it is now: Where are the winning players who must be developed to surround those two No. 1 overall picks?

"We have the pipeline now that it has taken years to build," said Kasten. "We've joined the group of teams that have good consistent farm systems that produce players every year."

We'll see. The jury is out. But, for the next five weeks, Nats fans will be watching another crucial trial of their franchise's Plan. Starting this week, new exhibits will be entered into evidence.

A Ramos and an Espinosa, a Maya and a Detwiler and a rebuilt Zimmermann, all of them mixed with more late-season data on the true value of Desmond, Bernadina, Storen and Morse.

It's not as thrilling as standing for another Strasburg "K" or watching a 500-foot Harper home run in batting practice. But it certainly is fascinating, and important, if you actually like baseball.

boswellt@washpost.com


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