If you’re looking for reasons to remain optimistic about the Nationals’ chances of climbing out of last place and back into the thick of the National League East race, look no further than the club’s longstanding biggest strength: the rotation.
Despite some notable April blowups, Nats starters have found their way again and are now leading the way, as they were expected to all along.
Overall, the Nationals rotation owns a 4.27 ERA, which ranks only 17th in the majors, and 1.215 WHIP, which ranks 11th. But those numbers include six early season blowup outings in which the starter gave up six or more runs.
There have been no such blowups in the last two weeks. In 13 games since Max Scherzer was roughed up by the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., Nationals starters have combined to post a 2.86 ERA and 1.042 WHIP.
And leading the way have been the club’s healthy veterans.
Scherzer, despite that shaky outing in Florida a few weeks ago, has looked very much like the best version of himself. The 36-year-old has allowed zero or one run in five of his seven starts this season and so far this month has 23 strikeouts with only one walk.
There’s really been only one dent in Scherzer’s armor so far in 2021: the longball. Of the 12 earned runs he has allowed to date, 11 have scored via home runs. The other one scored when center fielder Victor Robles lost a ball in the sun at Dodger Stadium, officially an earned run but hardly the pitcher’s fault.
Patrick Corbin has been far less dominant then Scherzer, but he put together a stellar performance during Thursday’s 5-1 win over the Phillies. With seven innings of one-run ball that included nine strikeouts and zero walks, Corbin looked very much like the peak version of himself from 2019.
After two nightmarish starts to begin his season, the left-hander has produced a 3.00 ERA over his last five outings. The key to his turnaround? Better mechanics that are allowing him to use his legs to generate more fastball velocity and to stay on top of his slider, which he threw a whopping 50 percent of the time during Thursday’s win.
“His first couple outings, he wasn’t throwing strikes,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “When he pumps strikes, and gets to two strikes as quickly as he has been doing, it’s going to be a tough at-bat for the opponent. ... I think he’s on the right track now.”
Jon Lester has proven to be exactly what the Nationals hoped the veteran lefty would be when they signed him this winter, posting a 2.25 ERA through his first three starts after opening the season on the COVID-19 injury list.
Joe Ross remains the most pleasant surprise on the entire roster. Throw out his 10-run disaster against the Cardinals, and he’s got a 1.65 ERA in his five other starts.
And though Erick Fedde has been less consistent, the right-hander may only make one more start (Sunday at Arizona) before Stephen Strasburg is ready to come off the IL and retake his place in the Nationals rotation.
This is how the Nats built their roster all along, believing they could continue to win behind great starting pitching. They actually haven’t been able to convert enough of those quality starts into wins for the last week-plus thanks to a tepid lineup that has often struggled to score three runs on any given night.
But in the long run, a deep and effective rotation will give the Nationals the chance to win every night. It’s up to the lineup (and a bullpen than has blown a couple of late leads in the last week) to make sure a rotation that is starting to look elite again isn’t wasted.