Craig Stammen has benefited all season from his ability to regenerate the Nationals' patience with him in the span of one impressive outing. In April, a start after Stammen had gotten yanked in 1 1/3 innings against the Phillies, he came back with eight innings of two-run ball in a win over the Rockies.
In May, it was 6 2/3 innings, one earned run and a career-high eight strikeouts against the Marlins, an outing after Stammen had been removed in the fourth inning against them the week before. And last month saw Stammen return to the majors after a three-week stint in the minors, holding the Braves to two runs in 7 1/3 innings.
Those outings contained enough of the stuff the Nationals saw enough in spring training to make Stammen their No. 3 starter: a low-90s fastball with movement, a sharp curveball and a quick-working approach to pitching. Stammen arguably had the best spring of any Nationals pitcher, effectively scuttling any talk of moving him to the bullpen, and one scout who covers the Nationals frequently even said at that point that Stammen was the Nationals pitcher he'd want most in a trade (other than Stephen Strasburg, who isn't leaving for anything short of Albert Pujols and a genetically-engineered clone of Walter Johnson).
Stammen has been able to resuscitate his spot in the rotation almost as often as he's needed to this year, but he might need to do it again on Sunday. He'll face the Marlins for the third time this year, the second in Florida, and is coming off a couple starts that blotted out most of the promise Stammen created with his win over the Braves.
He's got an 11.42 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in two starts this month, having taken a loss and a no-decision in a couple of slugfest defeats against the Mets and Giants. With Scott Olsen getting healthier quickly and Jason Marquis starting to pitch games during a rehab stint, the Nationals' inventory of pitchers is coming quickly. Jordan Zimmermann will be back soon, too, and Ross Detwiler should also be in the mix sooner than later. So if Stammen can't do something more consistent, and do it soon, he might not get another chance to wow his way back into the rotation.
For Stammen, everything starts with his two-seam fastball. He had a good one in his last outing against the Marlins, getting six of his eight strikeouts with the pitch (five of them looking). He has a tendency to overthrow the pitch at times, causing it to elevate and become a very hittable offering. If he sinks it well on Sunday, he'll have a chance for success, and the Nationals will have a shot to win the series against the Marlins and starter Alex Sanabia, who's making his second big-league start.
This is as important a juncture as Stammen's been at all season, and he's managed those well for the most part this year. He'll need to do it again on Sunday.