Coming into this week, the Nationals had won three consecutive series, but because they were against the underperforming Rangers and the below-.500 Phillies and Padres, it wasn't certain if the Nationals had turned a corner or found a soft spot in the schedule.
Starting Monday, the Nationals were going to be tested by the Giants in a four-game series and the Nationals passed the test. Not only have they taken the first three games of the four-game series, they have yet to trail on the scoreboard. Not only that, but the Nationals pitching staff has held the team with the second-most home runs in the National League to zero while striking out 14 and walking one.
The Nationals pitching staff has been on a roll of late, but the starting pitching catching fire has been the biggest key to the Nationals' recent hot stretch. Over the last 14 days, encompassing 12 games, the Nationals' starting pitching leads the majors with a 1.30 ERA, almost two runs better than the next closest, the Orioles at 3.31. Over that stretch, the Nationals starters have an amazing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 77 strikeouts to six walks and have only given up three home runs.
There is no doubt Nationals starting pitchers are hot right now, but they were always capable of this and they've done it before. Over the first 12 games of the 2012 season, the Nationals went 9-3 with the pitching staff as a whole producing an ERA of 1.91, but that included the struggles of Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez in the bullpen. The starting pitching, by itself, produced an ERA of 1.68, which is still marginally worse than what the current starting pitching has done. Backed by a better bullpen, and with Tanner Roark and Doug Fister serving as upgrades to Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson, the 2014 pitching staff is overall better than the 2012 staff and during their hottest stretch have been even hotter.
The most amazing part of the 2014 staff compared to the 2012 staff is that the current staff has been whole for maybe one trip through the rotation. Aside from rain delays and the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, the 2012 Nationals staff suffered no major injuries. In 2014, both Fister and Gio Gonzalez have landed on the disabled list. If Mike Rizzo has done one thing as Nationals general manager, it is to acquire pitching talent. Roark was acquired in a small deadline deal that sent Cristian Guzman to the Rangers. Roark was never supposed to be anything but organizational filler, but has produced a 2.34 ERA over the first 26 games of his career and has a 2.91 ERA as a full-time starting pitcher in 2014. Blake Treinen was the second piece in the trade that sent Michael Morse to the Mariners via the Athletics, and in the first three starts of his career, has yet to allow more than three runs.
As hot as the Nationals pitching staff has been in its last 12 games, it still hasn't been at full strength, as it's missing Gonzalez. Gonzalez, since coming to the Nationals in 2012, has been one of their most consistent starters. He has the third-best ERA (3.29) of any starting pitcher with at least 200 innings pitched and has pitched the second-most innings (445 2/3). When it comes to the Nationals starting pitching, it is all about the big three and right now the Nationals are missing the third piece of that, but both Fister and Roark have been great and made Gonzalez's absence a non-factor.
What Strasburg has done over his last three starts cannot be ignored. He has produced a stingy ERA of 1.42 while striking out 27, walking one and allowing one home run in that span. Over the last two weeks, Strasburg has lowered his ERA to 2.99 while leading the NL in the more advanced FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) stat at 2.29. The only thing that may keep Strasburg out of the Cy Young Award conversation at this point is that both Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto have pitched more than 100 innings in the same number of starts that Strasburg has pitched 87 1/3 innings.
Up and down the rotation, the Nationals' starting staff has been hot. Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are producing like the aces they were expected to be, while Roark and Fister are pitching more like top-of-rotation talent than the mid-rotation slots they currently occupy. All of this has helped the Nationals' starting staff to not only have the hottest stretch in the majors, but the hottest stretch Nationals fans have witnessed since the very beginning of 2012.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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 regular roster of writers.