Liz Barr: Formidable foursome gets Nats off to fast start

Welcome back to baseball. You hear that sound in the air? The sound of home runs leaving the park, bags being swiped and an umpire ringing up a strike three call? That means the Nationals are at it again. They’ve been hitting, running and, most importantly, pitching.

The Nationals arguably have the best four-man starting rotation in the National League, and after the first turn through the rotation, the starting pitching was on display. The group of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark were all stellar in their 2018 debuts, and the Nats earned them a win in all of their starts.

The group collectively gave up three earned runs over their four starts, giving them a combined ERA of 1.07. Strasburg gave up eight hits and one walk and struck out seven over 6 1/3 innings. Gio went six innings, gave up five hits, walked one and struck out seven. Roark went seven innings, gave up four hits, walked one and struck out six. On opening day, Scherzer went six innings, gave up five hits and one walk, and struck out 10 to lead the Nats to a shutout. The four starters hardly let anyone touch the bags, let alone cross the plate. If this is a glimpse of the pattern to come for the rest of the season, we are going to be spoiled with starting pitching wealth.

However, it’s not perfect, and there’s still a blip on the radar: the fifth starter’s spot. Manager Davey Martinez announced that A.J. Cole would be the fifth starter to begin the season, even as other options lingered around in the organization. On Tuesday in Atlanta, Cole had a chance to make his mark and solidify his hold on that starting spot.

Cole did not have a great night. He gave up 10 runs on 10 hits and walked three over 3 2/3 innings. It was not a fantastic evening for the Nats pitching staff in general, but it didn’t help Cole’s case for the starting spot.

But just because Cole had a bad 2018 debut doesn’t mean this is going to be the norm for him. Maybe he had first-game nerves. Maybe he was feeling off in his pitches. Maybe the Braves were just reading him well. Maybe he was having flashbacks to his abysmal major league debut. The question is, do you trust that this is a fluke and give him another chance, or do you go another route?

If you’re the Nationals and you don’t want to take the risk of this happening again, you have a few options within your organization. Erick Fedde has recovered from his injuries and impressed during spring training. He sported a 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings of Grapefruit League work, striking out 11. He was making a strong case for the fifth starter’s spot at the end of spring training, losing out to Cole and being optioned to Triple-A to start the season. However, his stuff looks very promising, and he could end up back with the club sooner rather than later.

The other option is Jeremy Hellickson, a proven major league starter the Nationals signed to a minor league deal during the latter half of spring training. Hellickson wasn’t ready to jump right into the starter’s role, so he’s doing some work in Florida, but he was signed with the intention of starting. When Hellickson finds himself ready, and if Cole is still struggling, Cole might find himself forced out of a starting job.

Now I don’t think that Cole giving up 10 runs a night is going to become a norm. Every pitcher has bad outings, and his just happened to be his first. Yes, it was bad, and it looked even worse compared to what the four starters before him were able to accomplish. But it’s just one game. Give Cole another chance or two. If he improves, then you can sweep this start under the rug and move on. But if this trend continues, then you have a number of other options to look at. But don’t write him off just yet.

Regardless, the Nationals have a ridiculous treasure trove of starting pitching that really shined in the first turn through the rotation. All early signs point to great things for the team and for the fans, and to agony for opposing hitters. If they can get the fifth starter’s spot tightened up, the rest of the NL better pray that they can just keep up.

Liz Barr blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog. Follow her on Twitter: @RaiseTheBarr1. Her opinions on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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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