Monday, May 2, 2011 9:19 p.m.
Updated at 11:52 p.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEOS
By Mark Zuckerman
They weren't supposed to pitch like this. The Nationals' rotation was supposed to be this club's weakest link. Certainly, that's the way it had been in previous seasons. And with Stephen Strasburg spending his spring and summer in Viera, Fla., rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, conventional wisdom suggested the Nats would be severely lacking in quality starting pitching.
So how to explain the fact that after Monday night's 2-0 win over the Giants, the Nationals now own a .500 record, having accomplished that almost entirely on the backs of a rotation that was supposed to be lacking dominant arms?
"It's been everything," utilityman Jerry Hairston said. "For us to be .500 the way we've started off slow swinging the bats, our pitching staff has kept us right there. They've been outstanding and just giving us the chance to win, and that's how you start to win. First you have to have pitching, then you have to have defense and then timely hitting."
The Nationals haven't been getting much in the way of hitting. They somehow won Monday's game totaling five hits, four of them coming in succession in the seventh inning.
And their defensive play has been spotty, though significantly better over the last week and certainly in top form Monday thanks to some spectacular catches by Hairston and center fielder Rick Ankiel.
But the pitching, that's been consistent since Opening Day. Nationals starters have managed to take the mound 28 times and in nearly every instance give their teammates a legitimate chance to win.
They may not boast a staff ace. But at the moment, they boast five quality arms. To wit: Tom Gorzelanny, by definition the club's No. 5 starter, now sports a 2.93 ERA after shutting the Giants out for eight innings Monday night.
"We feed off each others' outings," Gorzelanny said. "If guys need help with something, each of us are helping out. We're a close group. Everyone gets along really well together, and we kind of feed off each outing."
There's been plenty to feed off over the last week. During this just-completed, seven-game homestand, Nationals starters posted a 2.18 ERA. In four games against the World Series champion Giants, they allowed a total of four runs.
And if not for a historically bad offensive performance Saturday -- the Nationals became the first team in the live ball era to draw nine walks and get hit by three pitches and fail to score at least two runs -- this team would have just swept San Francisco out of town.
Gorzelanny was at his absolute best during Monday's win. He allowed a leadoff double to Aaron Rowand to begin his night, then retired 23 of the next 24 batters he faced. He was pulled after the eighth, not because he was tiring -- his pitch count stood at only 95 -- but because manager Jim Riggleman didn't want to take a chance up only two runs and decided to let closer Drew Storen start the ninth with a clean slate.
It was Gorzelanny's efficiency that made this outing so impressive. And it was a concerted effort by the 28-year-old lefty, who hadn't pitched into the eighth inning of a big-league game since Aug. 12, 2007, against these same Giants.
"Over the years, it's set in that it's more important to get balls on the ground or get outs, not try to get strikeouts," he said. "Because you start throwing five-, six-, seven-pitch at-bats, and you'll be throwing five innings, six innings and you've got 105 pitches. It's more important to just attack guys and go after them and let my stuff do the work."
That's a philosophy the entire Nationals rotation has espoused all season: Pitch to contact and let your defense do the work. It's perhaps out of necessity, given the lack of power arms in this particular rotation. But it's worked, producing a 3.38 rotation ERA that ranks sixth in the majors through the season's first month despite only 107 strikeouts (second-fewest in the NL).
"We're not strikeout artists over here," Gorzelanny said. "We're out here trying to get guys out. Everybody does a very good job of that."
As impressive as the pitching staff has been through 28 games, it hasn't been rewarded nearly as much as it should because of one of baseball's least-productive offenses. Only one member of Monday night's lineup boasted a batting average over .242: rookie catcher Wilson Ramos, whose .358 clip earned him the cleanup spot for a day.
On too many occasions, the Nationals simply haven't been able to produce the one or two clutch hits per night that would separate victory from defeat. On this night, they did manage to come through when it counted most.
Stymied all evening by Giants left Madison Bumgarner, who was perfect through four innings, the Nationals had a chance to break through in the fifth after Ramos led off with a double and took third on a sacrifice bunt. But Michael Morse and Hairston each struck out, killing the rally and sending both frustrated players to the clubhouse to watch video of themselves.
In that video room, Hairston and Morse tried to boost each others' spirits.
"He picked me up, I picked him up," Hairston said. "That's just the name of the game. That's what being a team is about. Sometimes it ain't going to go your way. You've just got to keep scratching and clawing, and that's a credit to him. He didn't let it get to him."
Morse certainly didn't, because presented with another opportunity in the seventh (two on, two out) he delivered the go-ahead single to center. Moments later, Hairston delivered an RBI double of his own to give the Nationals a 2-0 lead.
"We saw each other down in the tunnel and just told each other: 'Take this at-bat, get rid of it. Get it out of your mind,'" Morse said. "Our next at-bat, we're going to do something special."
A couple of clutch hits aren't going to turn the Nationals' woebegone lineup around completely. This team is likely to struggle to score runs all season, or at least until Ryan Zimmerman returns from a torn abdominal muscle in mid-June or later.
But this team doesn't need to tear the cover off the ball, not with the pitching it continues to get on a nightly basis. The Nationals are just going to have to try to win 3-2, 2-1 or 2-0 every day.
"We got a professional team out here," Morse said. "These guys, from the pitching staff to the bullpen to the guys on the bench, everybody is a really, really good, professional player. These are the kind of games we expect to have a lot of."
Is it realistic to think they can keep winning games like this over an entire season? Perhaps not. But more than one month in, this is the formula for success they've established.
It's gotten them to the .500 mark on May 2. And at this point, the Nationals couldn't ask for much more than that.Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.