KANSAS CITY — The best start in Nationals history has been powered, first and foremost, by the starting rotation. The Nationals have a 17-7 record thanks to a rotation that boasts a 2.18 ERA, tops in the baseball. The Cubs are close behind (2.27 ERA) and the Mets are third (2.96 ERA).
The most recent pass through the Nationals rotation produced dominating results: a 1.08 ERA (four runs over 33 1/3 innings) and 33 strikeouts to eight walks — even against a Cardinals team that entered the series as the highest-scoring in baseball.
“I love it,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “You’ve got to give them credit, the guys that are throwing the ball. And you’ve got to give the catchers credit for following [pitching coach] Mike Maddux’s game plan. And you’ve got to give him credit for coming up with [a game plan] … He gets here earlier than anybody, him and [bullpen coach] Dan Firova. How they’re going to pitch and attack a lineup. Like they say, good pitching beats good hitting. And it’s been the case more often than not this year.”
The Nationals faced several rebuilding teams and struggling offenses in a weak April schedule, and they took advantage of their opportunity, something they didn’t do last season.
The Nationals did so despite an uneven month from ace Max Scherzer, who turned in his best performance of the season Sunday with seven scoreless innings and nine strikeouts. Scherzer, who posted the best pitching season in Nationals history last year, has the highest ERA (3.55) of the team’s rotation so far. Joe Ross has the lowest (0.79 ERA) but over fewer starts. The rest: Gio Gonzalez (1.42 ERA), Tanner Roark (2.03 ERA) and Stephen Strasburg (2.25 ERA).
Maddux’s presence has helped in many small ways. Scherzer speaks highly of Maddux’s advice about the mental side of pitching. Gonzalez has leaned on Maddux in that area, too, as well as mechanics. Roark has made improvements on his comeback fastball, a pitch Maddux’s brother Greg excelled at throwing. Strasburg is continuing his dominant second half of last season while also resurrecting his slider. Ross is showing he can use a third pitch effectively.
In spring training, the Nationals appeared, for the first time in years, to be a team that would try to out-hit opponents rather than out-pitch them, based in part on the uncertainty of the bullpen. The reverse has been the case thus far.
The Nationals’ rotation also has hit relatively well. Nationals pitchers have a combined .196 average, the best in baseball. Scherzer notched two singles and a good sacrifice bunt Sunday against Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez, chasing him from the game with his second hit. Ross has reached base in half of his 12 plate appearances with three walks and three hits.
“We talk a lot of [trash] to each other who can hit the best,” Scherzer said. “The thing is a lot of us can really hit. Joe and Stras really have good swings. Anytime I can go out there and get knocks, I can really rub it in their face that I can still do it.”
All Nationals starters have a hit except Roark.
“But he’s put together some good ABs so it’s harder to really talk” trash, Scherzer said. “He drew a walk against [Jose] Fernandez. So we know he’s capable of it. He’s not a slouch at the plate.”
There is a lost art in good hitting and bunting from the pitchers.
“Prior to coming into pro ball and prior to [being a designated hitter] in the minor leagues, a lot of these guys were the best hitters where they came from,” Baker said. “I remember when we were kids in Riverside, Bobby Bonds used to hit two home runs and throw a no-hitter. It’s just a matter of practicing, of confidence and trying to be part of the team and the offense and not just realizing that your only job is to pitch.
“I know in my son’s league, they’ve got guys that are pitchers only, which I don’t like much because a lot of these guys can hit. That’s why it’s exciting, hopefully, to keep the DH out of our league and keep it in the other league. So now we’re going to the other league and I can give some guys some DH time and some rest on defense off their legs.”