Gio Gonzalez bounced out of the Nationals' dugout wearing a smile as wide as the strike zone. He smiles a lot, he always has, and he should: He is 26, left-handed and signed long term, and throws 95 mph with a good changeup and a curveball that calcifies left-handed hitters. And, most important, he is a critical member of the best pitching staff in the game.
We've been hearing for two years about this possibility, but it might have arrived in Washington a year early. Through Friday, the Nationals had a 2.38 ERA and .204 batting average against, had walked 43, and had struck out 138. Their rotation had been even better: 6-2 record, 1.94 ERA, .185 average against, 19 walks and 85 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings. The Nats became the first team since the 2005 Marlins to allow 32 runs in their first 13 games of the season. They won 10 of the 13 averaging fewer than four runs per game.
"I've been around a lot of good staffs, but nothing like this. This is every night, four hits [allowed] or less," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Hitters come by first base, look at me and say, 'It never ends, does it, you finish with one and then you get another.' Right now we have [No. 1 and 2 starters] all through our rotation."
Said Nationals utility man Chad Tracy: "Our pitching has been unbelievable. All our starters throw 93-94 but can go 96-98 if they want."
As does everything with the Nationals, the pitching starts with ace Stephen Strasburg, 23, who, sooner rather than later, will be considered the best pitcher in baseball. "I don't know how anyone ever gets a hit off him," said Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. Strasburg's stuff remains ridiculously good, but the adjustment he has made this year might extend his career. In his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2010, he has decided that getting an out early in the count is a good thing, and he has learned that he is good enough to get hitters out at 95 mph instead of 100.
"All you [the media] made a big deal out of all the strikeouts and the history he was making," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "But he doesn't have to strike out everyone."
After Strasburg's start Monday night against the Astros, in which he struck out five in six innings, he wondered whether he was tipping his pitches. The Nationals will examine that concern, but even if the opposition knows what is coming, he is very difficult to hit. Even as he pitches more to contact, he is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 19 innings.
Gonzalez has been almost as good. He has a 2.04 ERA after three starts; he joined Charlie Lea (1982) and Floyd Youmans (1986) as the only pitchers in Expos/Nationals history to make consecutive starts of at least seven innings, allowing no more than two hits in each start. But most important, he has only five walks in three starts. The A's traded him to Washington mainly to save money and because they got four prospects in return, but one of the A's said, "He walks 90 guys a year. We weren't sure that would change."
It has. So has Gonzalez's pitching philosophy. No pitcher throws more curveballs than Gonzalez because it is such a good pitch, but according to Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty, "hitters were sitting on the curveball." So, in Gonzalez's second start of the season, against Cincinnati, he threw more fastballs and changeups, which kept the Reds off balance.
"It's also nice to have 95 [mph] to go to," McCatty said.
Jordan Zimmermann, 25, a second-round pick in the 2007 draft, also throws that hard, and he has a very good slider. In addition, he has been even better than Strasburg and Gonzalez. Through three starts, Zimmerman has an ERA of 1.29 with 13 hits allowed and two walks in 21 innings, but due to little run support, he hasn't recorded a victory. Zimmermann had Tommy John surgery in August 2009 but posted a 3.18 ERA with 31 walks and 124 strikeouts last year. Zimmerman's progress from elbow reconstructive surgery has provided the map for Strasburg's recovery, and Strasburg is expected to be shut down after throwing 160 innings this season, as Zimmerman was after 160 innings (161 1/3 innings, to be exact) last season.
"No one has better stuff than Strasburg," one scout said, "but hitters don't take many healthy swings off Zimmermann, either. I love that whole rotation, but especially those two."
Edwin Jackson, 28, is the fourth starter. In his second start of the season, he became the first Expos/Nationals pitcher since Bartolo Colon in 2002 to throw a complete-game two-hitter with at least nine strikeouts. He also became the first pitcher in baseball since 1900 to record a victory as a starting pitcher for seven different teams before he turned 29 years old.
While Jackson has been around, left-hander Ross Detwiler, 26, the fifth starter, is just getting his career going. He was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft but was out of options this spring. So, he made the club, but he also deserved to make the club with the way he pitched this spring. The turnaround for Detwiler came last year when Randy Knorr, now the Nationals' bench coach, challenged Detwiler to "show some presence on the mound," which he finally began doing. It has carried over, as has his mid-90s heater.
"When he gets angry, he pitches even better," injured Nationals closer Drew Storen said. "Against the Mets [in Detwiler's second start], he got mad in a tough spot and got some big outs. He showed some moxie."
The Nationals' starting pitching is so deep, John Lannan was sent to the minor leagues ("that was very, very hard to do," Johnson said), even though he led the team in wins (10) last year. Lannan has 38 career victories, has started 128 games and has an ERA of 4.00 for his career. This spring, when it appeared Lannan might be on the trade block, a member of the Mets said, "If they don't want him, we'll take him. We'd love to have him." And a member of the Braves said, "I'd love to have him on our team. John Lannan is a good pitcher. He could help us."
The Nationals are not looking to trade Lannan (who is off to a slow start at Triple-A Syracuse) because he's only 27 and because no one has offered the Nationals any top prospects in return for him. Eventually, it would seem, he'll be back in the big leagues, but he might have to wait until another starter, Chien-Ming Wang, gets a shot. He has thrown only 104 1/3 innings during the past three years because of injury but seems to be getting closer to being the star he was for the Yankees in 2006 and '07.
As good as the Nationals' rotation has been, the bullpen has been nearly as good. And that's without Storen, who had a bone spur removed from his right elbow and likely will be out until the All-Star break. "Not too many teams in baseball could lose their closer and have two guys ready to step right in," Storen said. "That's how deep the bullpen is here."
Johnson has long used what he calls "Bullpen A and Bullpen B," a system that allows him to rest certain members of his bullpen one day but have a second bullpen in place for that day. Brad Lidge has been the primary closer, and even though he doesn't have the killer slider he had five years ago, he has a great idea about pitching (Lidge revealed Wednesday that he suffers from vertigo, which had made his availability questionable this week). His sidekick is Henry Rodriguez, who throws 100 mph, has a terrific slider, and has allowed one hit and no runs in six innings (three saves) this year. "He has what George Scott used to call 'a violent fastball,'" a smiling Johnson said of Rodriguez. After an outing against the Mets this year in which he blew away three hitters in the ninth inning, Rodriguez didn't thump his chest or point toward the sky; he did what he always does: He showed no expression as he slumped off the mound.
"With him," McCatty said, "you can never tell if he gave up six runs or no runs.''
The most important man in the bullpen is setup man Tyler Clippard, who made the All-Star team last year and whom one National League manager calls "the guy with the glasses that pitches every game." He heads a bullpen that gives the Nationals a chance even if the starter goes only five or six innings. Craig Stammen is one of the middle men. In one appearance this year, Stammen struck out the side on 10 pitches, then the next day, he struck out the side on 18 pitches.
There is so much to like about the Nationals' pitching. Every night, they will send out a starting pitcher, under the age of 29, who throws in the 90s. Every night, they can bring several power arms out of the bullpen as well. Every night, with the game's best pitching, they have a chance to win.
No wonder Gio Gonzalez is always smiling.