The rain is falling on the mound,
It’s falling on the plate,
But when the Nats are 12 and 4,
The next game’s worth the wait.
- Ted Leavengood
There is nothing cloudy or damp about the superlatives being used to describe the Nationals’ pitching staff. However, it is dedicated Nationals fans who are most aware of what it all means as they behold the endless parade of goose eggs, the never-ending lust for just one run, any run, no matter what it takes to make another great pitching performance stand up.
The Nationals were on the verge of their fourth shutout of the young season, ahead 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, when Brad Lidge coughed up the home run to Logan Morrison on Saturday. Stephen Strasburg led the way to what would have been the second shutout he has started in the young season. But the Nationals’ defense stiffened and Ian Desmond proved to be a difference-maker again to launch the team to new heights of excitement. Four shutouts, though - what would that have meant?
It is sufficient to ponder the implications of only three shutouts in the 16 games so far, without concerning yourself about the one that got away. Given the sense that any of the pitchers can potentially toss a shutout on a given day, projecting three out of 16 to the whole season is not outlandish. Thirty shutouts is what the math says, 30 shutouts by the pitching staff over the course of the season. That is quite a lot, and the history books say that no team has done better since 1909, during the dead ball era, when the Chicago Cubs tossed 32 shutouts as a team.
The Post’s Adam Kilgore, quoting FanGraphs on Wednesday, said that the average fastball velocity of the starting pitching was at 93.4 mph, the fastest figure since FanGraphs starting tracking the stat in 2002. This may be more than just your average good pitching staff. As Desmond said when interviewed after the Saturday afternoon win, “It is still early, but ...”
The last time any Nationals pitching staff managed to generate this kind of buzz was in 1945, when World War II veterans were just beginning to come back from the war. The Washington team that year featured four knuckleball pitchers, including Roger Wolff, who won 20 that year, and Dutch Leonard, who won 17. All four starters were quite good and the team ERA was the best in the American League that season at 2.92. That staff had 19 shutout victories and finished second in the eight-team league just a game and a half behind the Detroit Tigers.
But 1945 is not a real test. The war colored the level of competition. In truth, it is really necessary to go back to the Nationals’ golden era when their pitching led the American League frequently, as it did in 1930, when the team finished second to Connie Mack’s Athletics. Or back just a bit further to 1924 and 1925, when Washington still had Walter Johnson and the pitching staff led the league and the team to consecutive pennants and a World Series victory.
It is early, as Desmond said, but people are paying attention anyway. A friend, knowing my level of devotion, felt the need to share with me that he is watching every Nationals game all the way through, that he is glued to the television each night exactly the way his father was when he watched the 1969 Mets. It is a remarkably close parallel: the Miracle Mets, the team that was still a laughingstock in 1968, finishing ninth out of the 10 teams then in the National League. They turned it around and won 100 games behind Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Tug McGraw.
It would have been good to sweep the Marlins, they who have been a plague upon the house of Washington. They beat the Nationals in 11 of the 18 games they played last season, 13 times in 2010. But let the rain fall. We will beat the Marlins another day. Ryan Zimmerman needs the rest. And maybe we all need to take a deep breath, to spend a couple of days away from the suspense of all those goose eggs, spend some time pondering just where they are leading us.
Or we can just look forward to the next game in San Diego on Tuesday. Somewhere, I hear, it never rains - in California.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.