The Nationals head into the final two weeks of the season - a 13-game stretch in 14 days - coming off a weekend in which they didn't get one starting pitcher through the fifth inning. Expanded rosters and deeper bullpens aside, that's a formidable toll to put on any pitching staff.
Jason Marquis, Yunesky Maya and Jordan Zimmermann combined to pitch eight innings in three games against the Phillies, leaving with the Nationals trailing each time. And only once in those three games did the bullpen have a lead to protect; the Nationals rallied for a 6-3 lead after Maya departed yesterday, only to see Drew Storen kick it away in the ninth inning.
But the bullpen, on balance, has been nothing short of superb. It had allowed three earned runs in its last 25 2/3 innings before yesterday, continuing to be the rock of the team as it has been all year. The real issue here is more with the starting rotation, and particularly the September reinforcements that haven't worked.
Maya and Zimmermann have ERAs of 6.32 and 6.75, respectively; Maya has fallen behind early and failed to pump pitches into the strike zone, getting burned with a flat fastball and struggling when his curveball can't be his out pitch. Zimmermann, who showed his capabilities for brilliance in a six-inning, nine-strikeout, one-hit performance on Aug. 31, hasn't pitched through the fifth inning since.
Marquis, save for his abominable one-third of an inning performance on Friday, had mostly been serviceable otherwise; he hadn't allowed more than two runs in any of his five previous starts. But it's too late to call this season anything other than an abject disappointment for him.
Livan Hernandez and John Lannan continue to pitch well, and they'll be asked to put things back together in the first two games of home series against Houston, which starts tonight. But the other three pitchers leave plenty to be desired, and Ross Detwiler will be added to the mix on Thursday.
The Nationals publicly express plenty of optimism about their 2011 rotation, but in Maya and Zimmermann, they have two pieces who, though talented, aren't consistently reliable yet. It's why general manager Mike Rizzo will likely set a front-of the-rotation starter at the top of his offseason shopping list. Those pitchers are tough, and often expensive, to come by, but with the way the Nationals' late-season additions have pitched, it's becoming more and more evident they need another piece to fortify the rotation.