The Nationals' adjusted lineup was the story of last night - at least around here - but their rotation was in need of a spark as much as any other part of their team.
Aside from Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals have had just three quality starts in their last 15 games. With Strasburg, that number goes to seven. But it's become clear he isn't going to be able to save the rotation by himself.
Enter Craig Stammen, whose six-inning, one-run outing on June 6 wasn't enough to save him from being the pitcher lifted from the rotation to make room for Strasburg on June 8. That start, in a 5-4 loss to the Reds, wasn't nearly enough to redeem Stammen from two months of disappointing results. The pitcher who strong-armed his way into the Nationals' rotation this spring was unable to perform on the road (he had an 8.13 ERA and 1.988 WHIP in his first six starts away from Nationals Park) and couldn't get through the first inning (batters were hitting .418 off him, and he allowed 15 earned runs in 12 starts).
But the performance the Nationals got from Stammen on Tuesday night was a reminder of why they put him in the rotation in the first place. He returned to the majors with a sharp sinker and a renewed focus on attacking the strike zone, getting 14 groundouts in the 7-2 win over the Braves. The result was a 7 1/3-inning, two-run outing the Nationals badly needed. And the fact that it came on the road was even more encouraging.
His next several starts will prove if his three starts at Triple-A Syracuse, where Stammen had a 2.25 ERA and came within one out of a seven-inning no-hitter, served as a successful reboot on his stuff. Stammen, who was reasonably effective despite pitching with bone chips in his elbow last year, was able to throw harder fastballs and tighter curveballs this season. But early this year, he was throwing off-speed too much; his fastball percentage has dropped from 70.6% in 2009 to 57.1% in 2010. And the values of all of his off-speed pitches, according to FanGraphs have actually dropped dramatically from 2009.
Stammen has often been characterized as a right-handed version of John Lannan, though he throws harder and has a better curveball. But like Lannan, everything starts with sinker location for Stammen. He got away from that early this season, throwing more breaking pitches than he ever had, but appeared to be ready to embrace his sinker again on Wednesday.
If he can punch up the Nationals' rotation and follow Strasburg with a series of solid outings, he'd fill a major need on the roster.