On what was seemingly the bleakest day of an injury-filled year for the Nationals’ pitching staff - when they acted out of caution and put Stephen Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list - the seeds of the pitching staff they soon expect to have were right there for anyone who would look hard enough.
Scott Olsen, who helped stabilize the rotation for the first two months of the year before Strasburg got here, returned from his own case of shoulder inflammation, which put him on the disabled list for the last two months. He got right back to stubbornly rebuilding his credentials as a major-league pitcher, pumping strikes across the plate and flashing three solid pitches in a 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves.
And after Olsen was done, having completed six innings just before an epic storm soaked Nationals Park and sent thousands of summer campers shrieking for the concourses, the Nationals’ bullpen took over. The group - the “outcast family,” as rookie Drew Storen called it - had already been tasked with covering a whole game on Tuesday night, turning in a shutout after Strasburg was scratched, and picked up 4 2/3 more scoreless innings after a short outing by Livan Hernandez on Wednesday. They added another three shutout innings on Thursday, stiff-arming the NL East leaders as the Nationals took their lead from one run to two.
You could see it there - that in a matter of weeks, the Nationals’ pitching staff could be exactly where they want it to be.
If everything goes right, they’ll have Strasburg back by early August - and at least publicly, no one is expecting any different right now. Jordan Zimmermann should return soon after that, and Jason Marquis will get another shot to right himself after his disastrous start to the year when he comes off the disabled list in the next week or two.
To have those three pitchers with Livan Hernandez and Ross Detwiler, and a bullpen that’s transformed itself in a year from the team’s dodgiest component to its best, it’s reason enough for the Nationals to feel like they’ll be just fine once the injuries stop.
“I hope. I sure hope,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “It’s a good thing. Two weeks from now, or wherever we stand, we could have everybody back. But still, when you get out there, you’ve got to execute what you’re doing.”
Olsen did on Thursday. He showed no effects of the shoulder inflammation that he’d been pitching through the first two months of the season until the team finally shut him down in late May; his fastball sat between 89 and 91 mph, topping out around 92, and he threw with the confidence that’s made him one of McCatty’s favorites.
“He thinks he’s a left-handed Strasburg out there,” McCatty said.
He’d made just eight starts since last July, when he had surgery to repair a small tear in his labrum. Olsen was still throwing in the low 80s this spring, and when he slipped into the final spot in the Nationals’ rotation after Garrett Mock faltered in the first week of the season, he was still gritting through pain in between starts, working on touch and feel in bullpen sessions without cranking up his stuff.
“It would literally take every one of the days between starts until I felt better again,” Olsen said. “You can’t live your life like that.”
On May 21 against the Orioles, after Olsen pitched three innings, the pain had become too much; the Nationals sent him back to Viera, Fla., for six weeks of bullpen sessions and throwing programs, repetition and solitude. “It’s basically the worst experience you could have,” Olsen said.
But even then, he won support from the Nationals with how he handled things.
“From spring training to the way he approached every game, especially at the end, where he kind of sensed that to make the rotation (he had to pitch well), he’s done nothing but compete,” McCatty said. “I was not surprised at all. I really kind of expected it.”
If Olsen is able to keep up what he’s done in nine starts now - he’s got a 3.67 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP - the Nationals will soon have a rotation with two lefties (Olsen and Detwiler), two power pitchers (Strasburg and Zimmermann, assuming again they’re healthy) and a control artist (Hernandez). Marquis could contribute at some point, as could John Lannan, Craig Stammen, Chien-Ming Wang or even Yunesky Maya, whose signing has still not been announced by the team.
That group turns things over to a bullpen that’s pretty much pitching without a weak link right now; all seven of the Nationals’ relievers have had a hand in the 16 2/3 innings of shutout work against the Braves (counting Batista’s start). There’s a chance Matt Capps, who got his 26th save, would get traded by the end of the week, but even if he does, the Nationals could have the bullpen depth to overcome it.
Now, plenty of things can still go wrong before the Nationals lock their pitching staff into place; the Nationals could have a rotation in which 80 percent of the starters have spent time on the disabled list this year. Zimmermann is coming off major surgery, and neither he nor Detwiler is close to being a finished product. And if Strasburg’s shoulder shows any signs of further trouble, he won’t be back this year.
But in this series, almost everything that could’ve gone wrong for the Nationals pitching staff went wrong. And they still beat the Braves twice in three games. That’s enough to sow some optimism.
“That’s not an ideal series right there, with the way things went - rain delays and the whole Stras thing,” Storen said. “For us to kind of work through that and play well, and have the offense step up like we did, is really big for us.”