May 24, 2014, 11:22 AM EDT
PITTSBURGH — The Nationals woke up this morning a .500 club, and the majority of the blame for that is being heaped upon a lineup that ranks dead-last in baseball this month in runs (63), batting average (.228) and on-base percentage (.290).
And rightfully so. The No. 1 issue facing this club right now is its injury-ravaged lineup.
But let’s not absolve the Nationals’ pitching staff — in particular, the starting rotation — entirely from this so-far disappointing start to the season. Because that group, which is supposed to be this team’s greatest strength, has been decidedly mediocre to date.
Through 48 games, Nationals starting pitchers have posted a collective 3.90 ERA. That ranks 16th out of 30 MLB rotations. Not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. But not nearly as good as everyone expected that unit to be.
Stephen Strasburg boasts the best ERA of anyone in the rotation at 3.38, and that number is higher than the ERA any of the Nats’ big three starters posted in 2013. Gio Gonzalez saw his ERA spike to 4.62 before landing on the DL this week with shoulder inflammation. Doug Fister was shaky in his season debut in Oakland but has since put together two really nice starts in a row to lower his ERA to 3.93. Tanner Roark (3.42) has been solid throughout. Taylor Jordan (5.61) struggled before his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse.
And then there’s Jordan Zimmermann, who last night allowed four runs in six innings during the Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Pirates, the big blow coming on a hanging change-up to Pedro Alvarez that wound up in the shrubbery beyond the center field fence.
“I thought I was making some pretty good pitches,” said the right-hander, whose ERA now stands at 3.95. “Really, if I could take one pitch back, it would be the change-up to Alvarez, and we win the game 3-2.”
Whether Zimmermann really was one bad pitch away from a quality start is up for debate. The Pirates made pretty solid contact off him all night.
But the point stands. As much as the Nationals’ lineup is struggling to score runs right now, the pitching staff simply can’t afford to make one mistake at a crucial time.
There has been plenty of comparison made between the 2014 Nationals and the 2012 and 2013 versions of this franchise. The ’12 club had all kinds of injuries early (Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos). Through the first 48 games of 2012, the Nationals ranked 24th in baseball in runs scored and were hitting a collective .245. Did you know the 2014 Nats currently rank 17th in runs scored while hitting a collective .246?
So how did that team win so many games? How was that club 29-19 and comfortably in first place in the NL East while this one staggers around at 24-24, now third behind the Braves and Marlins?
Because the 2012 Nationals had the best rotation in baseball. Through the first 48 games of 2012, starters owned a collective 2.90 ERA, tops in the majors and a full run better than the 2014 rotation through the same point of the season.
Even last season, which was a struggle in its own right, the rotation’s ERA through its first 48 games was a strong 3.22, second-best in the majors.
Plain and simple, this year’s rotation hasn’t been particularly good. Yet. On paper, this should be among the very best starting fives in baseball. To date, it has been decidedly average.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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