Marty Niland: With rotation dinged again, Nats need quality starts - and good luck

Another week, another key injury for the Nationals.

This time it's Gio Gonzalez, who landed on the disabled list of for the first time in his seven-year career after being knocked around for a second straight start. If you're keeping score at home, that makes eight members of the opening day roster who have been sidelined at some point this season, including two from the starting rotation.

The prognosis for Gonzalez seems good, but there is still some cause for concern because once again, the Nats need to test the depth of their pitching and lean heavily on their bullpen.

If they make it through tonight without injury, the projected starting rotation from spring training will have completed just two turns since Doug Fister came back from the muscle strain that kept him out for the first five weeks of the season. It will be at least another two weeks before we see a chance for a third.

Blake Treinen and Taylor Jordan are both excelling at Triple-A Syracuse, and Treinen did well in his first major league start on May 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But whoever is called upon to spell Gonzalez in the rotation isn't going to be a seven-inning-a-game workhorse.

Moreover, Jordan Zimmermann is not known as an innings eater and has not exactly been mowing down the hitters. Zimmermann was unable to hold leads of 2-0 and 4-3 in Arizona, and although he won for the first time in three starts Sunday against the Mets, he seemed to run out of gas in the sixth inning.

Stephen Strasburg's early-inning struggles are well documented. Last Tuesday's start against Arizona was the first time in a while he was not hit hard in the first inning.

The fact is, second-year man Tanner Roark has been the most effective and consistent member of the starting staff, and he's not at his best on anything other than regular rest. Things have to change if the Nationals are going to stay in contention this season.

The Nationals have an excellent bullpen. Craig Stammen, Jerry Blevins, Aaron Barrett and Drew Storen have bailed out the starters time and again this season. Ross Detwiler even managed a scoreless inning against the Mets on Friday. But how long can they keep it up?

Fans who remember the Nationals' inaugural season may also recall that the bullpen was the strength of that team, which stayed in first place in the National League East from early June until late July. In addition to Chad Cordero's 47 saves, Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski, Joey Eischen and Hector Carrasco combined to win 19 games with a 2.61 ERA, and 13 other pitchers chipped in as well.

However, among the 2005 team's other problems was an inconsistent starting staff that forced manager Frank Robinson to rely much too heavily on his 'pen, and the relievers wore down over the course of the season. By September, they were spent, and the team lost 12 of its final 20 games to finish in last place at 81-81.

This year's bullpen is eminently more talented than the ragtag bunch that overachieved under Robinson. An overworked relief corps, though, can't expect to maintain the level of excellence we've seen so far this season.

The Nationals can't afford to find out if their untested pitching prospects can work at the major league level, or how far the bullpen will actually stretch. Strasburg and Fister are going to have to step up and consistently work past the seventh inning, and the others must turn in quality starts, especially during this stretch of winnable home games.

An overdue run of good health would also be welcome.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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