The Washington Nationals Are Shooting for the Moon
The St. Louis Cardinals are not only the reigning World Champions, but they are in a tight race with the Braves and Dodgers for the NL Wild Card. They probably still hold out hope that they can catch the Reds, which is why Washington taking three of four from a team like St. Louis in September is as impressive as it is crucial.
And there is no better test for the Nationals starting rotation–the best in baseball—than the Cards. They are the most potent offensive team in the National League, so the immovable object met the unstoppable force for a four-game series in DC.
As play began last Thursday, St. Louis led the NL in batting average at .274 and in runs per game at 4.80. Four of the first five batters were hitting above .300. Carlos Beltran—he of the 28 home runs—was the only weak link. After losing the first two games, the Cardinals had their backs to the wall and the strength of their offense y showed on Saturday as the battled back from every deficit that the Nationals could force upon them. And the resulting 10-9 loss was a tough one for Washington because they sorely needed to prove they were back on track.
Stephen Strasburg was better than the best as he allowed only two hits over six masterful innings in which he struck out nine of the best hitters in the NL. Strasburg will only have two more starts, the team announced after Sunday’s game. Barring any rainouts or other unseen events, his last game will be against the Mets on the 12th of September.
No one is happy about the fact, least of all the pitcher himself who has repeatedly said he would prefer to compete until the end of the season whenever that occurs. But he has accepted the wisdom of the decision if only grudgingly.
For Washington the loss of Strasburg is like jettisoning the first stage booster rocket after the ship achieves orbit and begins its ascent to the moon. But without Strasburg, the Washington Nationals four-man rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler is still better than any other in baseball. It has all the “right stuff” to take Washington to October and beyond.
Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson were every bit as good as Strasburg in their outings against St. Louis and the Cards’ prime time offense. Gonzalez pitched a complete game shutout to lower his ERA to 3.10. It was his 17th win to tie for the NL lead. He is first in Batting Average Against and fifth in the NL in strikeouts. Edwin Jackson was almost as good as Gonzalez and went eight strong, struck out ten and did not give up an earned run.
Then there are the other two young pitchers in the rotation, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann. Both were products of the 2007 Rule Four Draft, Detwiler chosen in the first round, sixth overall. Zimmermann was taken in the second round, but the hard-throwing right-hander came along much faster. He leads the foursome with a 3.01 ERA though the team has managed to win for him only nine times.
Detwiler has continued to grow with each start of the 2012 season. He started the year in the rotation for the first time in his career, but was moved to the bullpen to accommodate Chien-ming Wang in May. After Wang faltered, Detwiler became a permanent fixture in the rotation in late June and has a record of 9-6.
On Labor Day he mowed through the Cubs lineup allowing only four hits over seven strong innings in a 2-1 win for the Nationals. He throws as hard as any left-hander in the National League, topping out at 97 mph, although he sits most frequently at 93-94. His hard sinker gets frequent groundballs.
Detwiler’s emergence as a top pitcher in the NL—he ranks 13th in ERA, WHIP and Batting Against–means that the likely playoff rotation for the Nationals will be the strongest in baseball. Without Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann, Jackson, Detwiler and Gonzalea are all in the top fifteen in the NL in ERA and no other team can come close to that claim. There is even a capable replacement for Strasburg in John Lannan. He is a proven quality starter with 40 wins and a career ERA of 3.99. His two spot starts for the Nationals in 2012 were both outstanding clutch wins. His last two starts for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs were both complete game shutouts.
If there is any pressure that Strasburg’s departure creates, it is on the offense. They outscored the Cardinals 31-14 over the four days. But they have no Matt Kemp, no Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman can carry the club as well as anyone, but he is playing hurt. Adam LaRoche has been the most consistent source of power, but he is hitting only .260. But there are no weak links either. Any player in the Nationals lineup can get hot and carry the team for a few nights. Bryce Harper came alive for last week and had eight RBI and three home runs. The bottom half of the order: Desmond, Espinosa, and Suzuki carried the day on Sunday.
Suzuki, the Hawaiian “Reggae Man,” may be the best trade that GM Mike Rizzo has made in 2012. His defense is top tier and he is hitting .286 for the last two weeks with numerous timely clutch hits. He could solidify the only question mark in the Washington lineup going into October.
The Nationals magic number is 22. There is still a lot of baseball to play, but every day tightens Washington’s claim to the NL East title. In the coming weeks there may even be events around the Nationals to rouse more passions than the departure of Strasburg. It has been a season of drama for Washington, one of surprise and wonder, one almost as improbable as a man on the moon.