While lineup struggles, Nats pitching staff is living up to billing

The Nationals were just swept by the Braves in large part because of their lack of offensive production, especially in key moments late in games. On the flip side, though, they were in a position to have a chance to rally late because of their pitching staff, which is starting to perform like it was supposed to all along.

The Nats sport a 4.06 ERA overall through 27 games, which ranks 17th in the majors. Nothing to get too excited about. Except the staff is trending in the right direction, putting some of those early season meltdowns behind them.

Over their last 13 games, Nationals starters have posted a 3.27 ERA and 1.157 WHIP, avoiding the kind of blowups that were all too common during the season’s first two weeks.

They’ve done so thanks to more consistent performances from Patrick Corbin, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde to go along with Max Scherzer’s usual brilliance. And they’ve done so with the addition of Jon Lester, who in two starts so far has been pretty much exactly what the Nats hoped he’d be.

Lester-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgLester has allowed three runs through 10 innings, showing he can keep the ball down in the zone and induce weak contact. The veteran left-hander is still trying to build himself all the way back up after a haphazard March and April in which he was twice sidelined, but he’s getting closer to the point where he’ll consider himself at full strength.

“I think there’s something to build there,” Lester said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters Thursday. “I’m still getting my feet under me here. Obviously, here’s a little different than being down in Fredericksburg (at the now-defunct alternate training site) or sim games or whatever. I’m hoping that there’s still a little bit there. But as far as physically ... I’ve been feeling good. Hopefully we can continue to build off that.”

The Nationals rotation was supposed to lead the way all along. The Nationals bullpen was not necessarily supposed to do the same, but with the season now one-sixth complete, the relief corps has been the most reliable part of the roster.

Overall, the bullpen owns a 3.51 ERA (ninth-best in the majors) and 1.105 WHIP (sixth-best). But the unit has been even better of late. During that same 13-game stretch in which the rotation has taken a big step forward, Nats relievers own a 2.66 ERA and 0.959 WHIP.

In 17 2/3 innings during this just-completed, six-game homestand, the bullpen surrendered only one run-scoring hit: Huascar Ynoa’s grand slam off Tanner Rainey during Tuesday’s loss.

And they’ve been getting contributions from everyone. Brad Hand has not allowed a run and is 3-for-3 in save opportunities. Daniel Hudson has a 2.00 ERA and only four hits allowed in 10 innings. Austin Voth (1.42 ERA in nine games) looks like a revelation in this new role. Kyle Finnegan (3.55 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings) is the new workhorse while Wander Suero recovers from an oblique strain. Sam Clay looks like a keeper from the left side. Even Paolo Espino, still on the roster as a long reliever, has performed with five perfect innings out of the ‘pen.

None of this, of course, contributed to a win this week against the Braves.

But if the Nationals pitching staff can continue to deliver like this, the struggling lineup will be in a position to actually make it all pay off sooner or later.

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