Here's the good news: The Nationals are looking like they've got three top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers right now.
Jordan Zimmermann is tied for the major league lead with 11 wins and has a 2.28 ERA. Gio Gonzalez has bounced back from a rocky April and owns a 2.32 ERA over his last 10 starts. And after yesterday's outing, Stephen Strasburg has a 2.41 ERA on the season. Over his last eight starts (one of which was a two-inning, injury-shortened outing), Strasburg's ERA is a ridiculous 1.47 and he's holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average.
Somehow, Strasburg has been able to post those numbers pretty quietly.
Last year, Strasburg had a 2.60 ERA to this point in the season but owned a 9-2 record. This season, the righty is just 4-6, but he's received the lowest run support in the majors, getting just 2.60 runs per start. The record isn't nearly as good and the talk of an appearance in the All-Star Game isn't as loud, but outside of that, Strasburg's 2013 season to this point has been even stronger than his 2012 campaign.
"I could say I've learned a lot, just looking back to where I was at last year," Strasburg said after yesterday's outing. "I feel like I've had a little bit more freedom to go deeper into ballgames this year and that's what you really want, those crunch-time situations late in the game."
As for the lack of run support, Strasburg didn't put any blame on his offense or claim that it's causing him to adjust the way he needs to pitch.
"I think it's making me a better pitcher, and I've learned a lot already," he said. "I think the one thing I learned is that you can't go out there and try to do too much, you can't go out there and pitch to the scoreboard. Once you do that, you're done."
Believe it or not, yesterday marked the first time since May 4 - a span of eight starts - that Strasburg had allowed more than one earned run in an outing. He allowed four unearned runs in that May 11 start against the Cubs after Ryan Zimmerman's fifth-inning throwing error, and again, had that May 31 start against the Braves in which he left the game after just two innings. After that outing, Strasburg landed on the DL for a little more than two weeks.
But despite a few bumps in the road, Strasburg has been pretty consistent over the last couple of months. He hasn't had the lights-out, double-digit strikeout games that some casual fans might expect from the 2009 No. 1 overall pick every time out, but he's been darn good.
"He's learning. I think that's the scary part," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's still got a lot to learn and a lot to adjust to and make adjustments. Little things. Obviously he's a great pitcher. It's kind of scary to think he's not even really close to what he could be.
Now here's the bad news: Even with these three starters who have been tearing it up for the last two months (or more, in Zimmermann's case), the Nationals still sit at .500 as they open a three-game series with the Mets tonight.
They've been able to get tremendous starting pitching from 60 percent of their staff for much of this season, and they still haven't gone on a run.
"We haven't gone on one of those streaks that we had at the start of the year and then a couple times during the year (last year)," Strasburg said. "So we're still waiting for that to happen."
Many of us that expected the Nats to be well above .500 by now are surprised that they haven't been able to get on an extended run thus far this season. They had a chance to win their third in a row yesterday, sweep the Diamondbacks and carry some momentum into New York. Instead, they dropped the series finale yesterday, but while that moved them back to .500, they still are able to pull some positives from the last week.
"We won the series," Zimmerman said. "We're not going to get to where we need to get in one homestand. We're not going to win 15 games in a row. It's the big leagues. It's hard to win. We won the series, we split a four-game series against a good team. it's a good homestead."
Now they need to start stringing together good homestands, good road trips. They'll face Matt Harvey, Dillon Gee and Zack Wheeler during this three-game set with the Mets, two young studs and one guy who has dominated them this season. Only one of their big three - Gonzalez - will start during this series, meaning the runs that have been lacking for the Nats this season will be even more valuable in the Big Apple.