On the Nats' great starting pitching stretch

ATLANTA – The Nationals have always focused on starting pitching. They boasted some of the best rotations between 2012-19, en route to winning four division titles, a National League Wild Card berth and a World Series championship.

Now after a few lean years, they’re starting to see a new generation emerge as one of the best rotations in baseball. And over the last week, manager Davey Martinez, pitching coach Jim Hickey and pitching strategist Sean Doolittle have their young rotation on an impressive stretch.

Following last night’s 7-2 win over the Braves, Nationals starters have pitched to a 2.36 ERA (11 earned runs in 42 innings) with 52 strikeouts and just five walks over the last seven games.

During that stretch, Jake Irvin has allowed two runs and two walks with 16 strikeouts in 12 ⅓ innings over his last two starts. MacKenzie Gore has allowed three runs (two earned) and one walk with 18 strikeouts in 12 ⅓ innings over his last two starts. Mitchell Parker gave up three runs and no walks with six strikeouts over six innings on Monday. Trevor Williams gave up one run and no walks with eight strikeouts in five innings on Saturday. And even Patrick Corbin turned in a quality start Sunday, giving up four runs (three earned) and two walks with four strikeouts in six innings.

“They're pitching really well,” Martinez said. “They’ve got the fastball. We always talk about how McKenzie's stuff is really good. They're utilizing his fastball, but they're also mixing in the breaking balls when they need to, and they've been effective. And they're getting better at being efficient. That's what I love about him. Hickey talks about that every day with these guys, understanding what you can do in certain situations. They're buying in and doing well.”

Irvin and Gore have been particularly special the last two nights, combining for 11 ⅓ innings, eight hits, two runs (one earned), two walks and 20 strikeouts. By each getting 10 punchouts, they became the first Nationals duo to strike out 10 hitters in consecutive games since Corbin and Max Scherzer on Sept. 17-18, 2019.

“Yeah, it's been great,” Gore said. “Just talking about Irvin, how we keep seeing him get better and better. Understanding himself and making adjustments from start to start. Really, it just says so much about him. It's been fun to watch and be a part of. He's been throwing great and it's been fun to watch.”

Of course, the strikeouts are sexy. For Gore, he has now struck out 10 or more batters twice this season and six times in his career. Last night was also his first 10-strikeout, no-walk game of his career, joining a list of Nationals pitchers who have completed that feat that includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, John Patterson, Jordan Zimmermann, Joe Ross, John Lannan, Gio González, Tanner Roark, Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray.

But the no walks are just as sexy, if not more so, to the manager, who has seen his starters issue just two free passes over the first three games of this series against the Braves.

“Yeah, we have to attack the strike zone,” Martinez said. “I mean, that's kind of what we need to do. We need to keep guys (off the bases). We can't give free passes. Our starting pitching has been doing well with that, they really have. And it's been a trickle effect with all these guys. They're attacking the zone and putting hitters in swing mode. So it's been good.”

Some even think the best part is how deep the starters are getting into the games: They have averaged six innings over this seven-game stretch.

“The strikeouts aren't what's cool to me. It's that they're going deep into games and saving the bullpen,” said Lane Thomas. “So setting an example like that for everybody else, I think it's a good thing. Anytime you go deep, whether you're striking out guys or not, I feel like it's good for the bullpen. It's good for us when they're working fast. So I think it's good. Just keep building off that.”

But no matter which stat they chose to focus on, the rest of the team recognizes their starting pitching is doing something special right now.

“Yeah, I mean, Jake was incredible yesterday. His stuff was working all over the place,” said Jacob Young, who has a great vantage point in center field, after last night’s game. “I think he had 10 Ks. It was great to see him work the zone and get ahead of a lot of guys and be able to put people away. And then, Mitch has been great since he got here. Just controlled the strike zone and throwing a lot of strikes, which is huge. And then MacKenzie today, I mean, when his stuff's on, it's on. It's some really good stuff. It's a great view out there in center field. I'm happy I'm not in the box, that's for sure. He has great stuff, great command of it and it's fun to watch.”

The Nationals are 4-3 over the last week. But the starters are 3-1, showing that when the team loses, it’s usually due to a lack of run support. The Nats averaged six runs in the games they won. So when the starters do get that run support, it’s been game over.

“When our starting pitchers are keeping us in the game like that, if we can score first – and we always talk about that – it seems like the games go fairly well,” Martinez said last night. “So we need to put the pressure on the other team. … But when we score and we get the pitching we're getting, we'll win some games.”

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