Led by impressive arms, Nats no novelty
ATLANTA -- The question typically posed at this time of the year for a surprise contender like the Washington Nationals is: "Can they hold up over the long haul?"
The more accurately phrased question for the 2012 Nationals might well be: "With pitching like this, why wouldn't they hold up over the long haul?"
The novelty value of the Nationals having, for instance, the second-best record in the National League is wearing off. The fact that they are in first place in the NL East after 45 games, also has lost its shock effect. And this is, after all, the NL's toughest neighborhood.
The Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves Friday night, 7-4, moving their record to 27-18, an even .600. The Braves, banged up and losers of five straight, are not operating at their peak right now. And they would need to be closer to that peak just to take a series from a team with the kind of pitching like Washington's.
Chipper Jones, the face of the Braves and a future Hall of Famer, a credible fellow in other words, lavished praise on the Nationals' pitching staff Friday. But there wasn't anything he said that seemed at all overstated or excessive.
Jones said that Stephen Strasburg is one of the most talented pitchers he has ever faced, suggesting that Strasburg is a "hybrid," a mixture of "a Kerry Wood in his prime and Justin Verlander."
But this is much bigger than one pitcher, even when that pitcher is Stephen Strasburg.
"They have five guys that have established themselves as the best starting staff in the game," Jones said of the Nationals. "They have the best starting five in the game -- no doubt. They have power at the top of the rotation. They have power all the way through. All their guys throw 94 to 98, sometimes 100 [mph].
"Their bullpen is nothing to sneeze at. They have some good quality lefty-righty arms. The reason they have been able to sustain their level of play through all their injuries to their everyday players is the fact their pitchers keep them in the game, night in and night out. That's the right formula."
The statistics back Jones' claims. Coming into the weekend, the Nationals' pitching staff led the Major Leagues in team ERA, starters' ERA, strikeouts, batting average against, fewest hits per nine innings, WHIP, fewest baserunners allowed per nine innings, OPS against and fielding-independent pitching.
It is getting a little late to consider this kind of performance as some sort of early-season aberration, some kind of staff-wide fluke.
Friday night, in a contest between the top two teams in the NL East, the Nationals had what for them was a pitching issue. The Nationals struck quickly for four runs in the first off Tim Hudson, one of the top pitchers on Atlanta's staff, or any staff for that matter.
But Washington starter Ross Detwiler was not finding the strike zone with enough consistency, and when Detwiler hit 100 pitches with one out in the fifth, Nationals manager Davey Johnson pulled him, two outs short of qualifying for the victory. Johnson acknowledged that he had grown frustrated watching Detwiler not attack the strike zone with enough aggressiveness.
"'Det' has been outstanding," Johnson said. "He's got a great arm, great stuff. But that was especially difficult for me."
On another staff, Detwiler's 3.88 ERA could make him the No. 2 starter. Here, with Strasburg (2.21), Gio Gonzalez, (1.98), Jordan Zimmermann (2.47) and Edwin Jackson (3.38), Detwiler is fifth of five.
When he was relieved by Chien-Ming Wang, just off the disabled list, the thought occurred that, should Detwiler continue to struggle, Wang might eventually turn into Detwiler's replacement in the rotation. Detwiler has been off his best form in his last three starts and this was his shortest start of the season. Wang picked up the victory, giving up one run in three innings. Wang twice won 19 games for the Yankees earlier in his career and when he is right he has a heavy, effective sinker. But Johnson wasn't giving questions about a change in the rotation any immediate credence.
The more lasting concern for the Nationals would be scoring runs. They came into the weekend ranked 13th in the NL in runs scored. They have reasonable hope of becoming better as they become healthier. The Nats have a large presence on the disabled list, but their cleanup hitter, Mike Morse, who suffered a lat strain, is expected back in early June.
Still, this is a pitching-first operation. If the young and exceptionally talented Nationals' rotation can continue to be as extraordinary as it has been over the first fourth of the season, there isn't any reason to expect that this team is somehow going to evaporate.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.