Their lockers at RFK Stadium are all in a row, along the back wall of the clubhouse. Livan Hernandez, tucked back in a corner, barely visible. Esteban Loaiza, just to the right, probably tinkering with the stereo. John Patterson, growing more serious as he gets a day closer to his next scheduled start. Tony Armas Jr., one stall farther right, the white cords from his iPod earphones cascading down to his waist.
Four characters who, when spring training opened, had questions surrounding them, questions that led to the heart of how the Washington Nationals would perform. Now, they are as in sync as a chorus line, as if they have draped their arms over each other's shoulders and have started high-kicking.
"They've been the key, to me, as far as I'm concerned," Manager Frank Robinson said, "to the success of this ballclub this year."
So many aspects went into the Nationals' just-completed, preposterously successful 12-1 homestand that there is much to break down. But nothing has been more astounding or essential than the success of the starting rotation, which went 6-0 with a 2.02 ERA during that stretch -- and might, only now, be truly rounding into form.
"I think once everybody gets it going, it kind of feeds," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "It's like hitting. One guy gets going, and then the next guy, and all of a sudden, it starts snowballing. I think that's the way it's going for us right now."
Say what you will about how statistics can be deceiving, but then consider this: The Nationals' starters began the homestand with an ERA of 4.19. Monday, they began a nine-game road trip -- beginning a three-game series against the Anaheim Angels -- with a 3.73 ERA. Teams whose rotations have better ERAs: Atlanta, the Chicago White Sox, Florida and St. Louis. How important is that one statistic? The White Sox and Cardinals were two of only three teams -- the Minnesota Twins were the other -- who entered Monday's games with a better record than the Nationals. Not only did the Nationals begin play Monday with 10 consecutive wins, but with 16 consecutive games in which their starter had yielded no more than three runs.
"They've been a huge part of our success," catcher Brian Schneider said. "They're giving us quality start after quality start. It keeps our bullpen fresh, and that's a big reason why the bullpen's doing well, because they haven't been overworked."
This hasn't happened without a certain degree of tumult. Only Hernandez, who will pitch Tuesday looking for his 10th win, and Loaiza, who started Monday night, have been constants all year, taking the ball every fifth day. Zach Day began the year as the fifth starter, but he was hit by a line drive on May 23 in Cincinnati, sent to the minors three days later and eventually placed on the disabled list. Tomo Ohka began the year as the fourth starter, briefly lost his spot in the rotation, and was traded to Milwaukee last Friday for second baseman Junior Spivey.
Armas, who battled heat, humidity and his own erratic tendencies in shutting out Seattle over five innings Sunday, missed the first month of the season with a groin strain, and it showed. But in his last three starts, he has allowed just three runs in 17 innings, an indication he might be returning to the form he showed early in 2003, before he had shoulder surgery.
"He battled," Robinson said.
Patterson, too, has had his share of travails. He missed two starts last month after complications from back problems, but said Monday -- two days after looking impressive in beating Seattle -- that he's back to his early-season form, when he appeared ready for a breakout season.
"I'm right there," Patterson said. "My curveball's coming. It's such a fine pitch, there's so much feel to it, that it's not quite as sharp. But the slider's right there, nice and tight. I feel great."
And the Nationals feel great with Patterson, who has allowed only one home run in his 601/3 innings, on the mound. He is only 3-1 with a 2.54 ERA, but Washington is 7-3 in his starts.
And soon, the "X" factor will be unveiled. The trade for Spivey looked brilliant this weekend, particularly when Spivey hit a two-run homer to help beat the Mariners on Sunday. But it will truly be a success only if newly acquired Ryan Drese, picked up off waivers from the Texas Rangers, steps into the role vacated by Ohka and pitches well.
"That's what I'm here for," Drese said Monday.
For Drese to fall into lock step with the rest of the rotation seems unlikely. He posted a 6.46 ERA with the Rangers and gave up 10 runs in his final 18 innings before the Rangers cut him loose -- despite the fact that he was the team's Opening Day starter. He will make his first start for the Nationals Wednesday against the Angels, and he dismissed the notion that his sinker, his best pitch, had flattened out.
"Not at all," he said. "I had a few plays on defense that cost me a few runs, and I made a couple errors, and stuff happens."
Right now, though, there is a sense among the Nationals' starters that being the pitcher to break this run would be akin to slapping the rest of the staff in the face. They watch each other from the dugout, look at the results, and then try to outdo the other guy.
"Being a competitor, you compete against each other -- in a good way," Patterson said. "I don't think any of the starting pitchers want to go out there and pitch a bad game and end this winning streak. It can be contagious. It makes you buckle down even more."
Nationals starter Livan Hernandez entered last night's game with a 9-2 record and a 3.35 earned run average.