In the middle of all the - what's the right word? Hoopla? Hysteria? - over Stephen Strasburg's debut week is this little truth: The rookie, two starts into his career, might be the best pitcher the Nationals have.
Think about it: They have Strasburg, who struck out 22 batters in his first 12 1/3 innings. They have Livan Hernandez, who has been borderline phenomenal this season, but who hasn't been able to sustain this level of performance (a 2.28 ERA in 12 starts) over a full season in recent years. They have J.D. Martin and Luis Atilano, two serviceable pitchers who probably aren't in anyone's ideal major league rotation.
And they have John Lannan, who's been their de facto ace the last two seasons, but is quickly ceding that role to Strasburg. Lannan was rickety again on Tuesday night, allowing seven runs (six earned) on 10 hits and four walks, giving up a decisive three-run homer to Ryan Raburn in the fifth inning of the Nationals' 7-4 loss to the Tigers. His ERA is 5.45, and he hasn't made it out of the fifth inning in his last two outings.
Manager Jim Riggleman hinted at it in his televised postgame interview, and it's becoming clearer by the week: The Nationals' season depends on their ability to hang on until they get their reinforcements (Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler) back from the DL or until they make a move to get another pitcher.
GM Mike Rizzo told reporters that Scott Olsen is going to extended spring training in Viera, Fla., having suffered a setback to his inflamed left shoulder. When he was healthy, Olsen gave the Nationals a solid left-hander. Right now, they don't have one, which is what makes Lannan's struggle so difficult.
If Lannan is on, the Nationals have a potentially dominant starter (Strasburg), a veteran currently at the top of his game (Hernandez) and a solid No. 3 (Lannan). If not, they've got two good starters, two that they're hoping will get by (Martin and Atilano) and a big problem. Lannan isn't locating his sinker, and if he's not doing that, he's got big trouble.
So what about the replacements? Detwiler is on a rehab assignment, Wang could be back in July and Zimmermann is already hitting 94 mph in simulated games. They'll also get Jason Marquis back at some point. But the question is whether the Nationals can hang on until then, especially with Strasburg being treated with such care.
The key to doing that appears to be Lannan.