Last season, the San Francisco Giants became one of the more unlikely world champions in recent history, if you’re judging likeliness by the strength of the lineups they were fielding on most nights. The Giants finished ninth in the National League in runs, and didn’t have a batter hit over .300, post 30 homers or drive in 100 runs. But they had the best pitching staff in the league, with aces at the front of their rotation and a redoubtable bullpen to preserve low-scoring wins.
The Nationals’ pitching staff doesn’t have a Tim Lincecum or a Matt Cain. But they’ve also lost 298 games in the last three seasons, so most people would settle for respectability. And right now, the Nationals have it almost solely because of their pitching.
That was clear again Monday night, when Tom Gorzelanny became the latest unlikely Nationals starter to take command of a game. He traded zeros when Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner for seven innings, and when the Nationals finally caught a break in the seventh, Gorzelanny piled one more shutout inning on before handing the game to Drew Storen. The Nationals won 2-0, shut out the world champions for the second time in four days and won three games in a four-game series where they scored 11 runs.
They are 14-14, heading into a key nine-game stretch against the Phillies, Braves and Marlins. And it’s because of their pitching.
“It’s been everything,” said outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who drove in a run with an eighth-inning double. “For us to be .500 the way we’ve started off slow swinging the bats. Our pitching staff has kept us right there. They’ve been outstanding and just giving us the chance to win and that’s how you start to win. First you have to have pitching, then you have to have defense and then timely hitting and hopefully out hitting starts to come around.”
The Nationals’ starters, who posted a 2.18 ERA in a seven-game homestand, have been unique because of how low the expectations were surrounding them. Most pundits, local and national, picked them to finish fourth or fifth in the division, largely because of a starting staff that was supposed to struggle without Stephen Strasburg.
Instead, they’ve thrived with a simple approach, striking out the fewest batters in the National League but also walking the second fewest and allowing the second fewest homers. Their starters, almost uniformly, have followed pitching coach Steve McCatty’s philosophy, pounding the lower half of the strike zone and getting grounders even when they could be going for strikeouts.
“You’re not trying to miss bats. You’re trying to make quick outs,” Gorzelanny said. “Everybody has that same thought. We’re not strikeout artists over here. We’re out here trying to get guys out. Everybody does a very good job of that. I don’t think Livo’s (Livan Hernandez) a strikeout guy anymore.”
That’s an approach that works well in the era of strict pitch limits, but it could also burn the Nationals later in the season as hitters start to find their form. For now, though, as an unheralded starting staff continues to work above its expectations, it’s taking a whole team with it.
“I think probably the feeling is, ‘You know what? We haven’t really hit yet, so this is probably where we should be,’ ” manager Jim Riggleman said. “And then there’s some feeling that we’ve pitched so good, maybe we should have done better. But regardless, your record is what you are. It’s clean now. It is what it is. Let’s strap it on tomorrow and win one.”