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Mar 19

2013 Preview: Starting Rotation

Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced last week, to the surprise of few, that Stephen Strasburg will take the mound when the team opens the 2013 season on April 1 against the Miami Marlins.

While Strasburg’s status for the 2012 postseason was the topic of much conversation and even criticism after the team shut him down after 159-1/3 innings in his first full season after Tommy John reconstructive surgery, his status as the team’s overall No. 1 starter has never been in doubt. When fully healthy, he’s without peer on the staff, if not in the National League. And when he’s really on his game, you can argue for all of the major leagues.

In all of April last season, he gave up just four earned runs over 32 innings. The fact that he won just two games in that five-game stretch was more a result of the Nationals’ anemic early-season offense, a problem that the team does not foresee repeating itself this year. in another stretch in May and June, he win five straight starts to run his record to 9-1, with a string of four straight starts where he gave up two or fewer runs, including a shutout.

Johnson has been taking it easy on Strasburg and the rest of the starters this spring, but is now challenging them to go deeper in games. On Saturday, Strasburg went 5-1/3 innings, throwing 86 pitches. He said afterward that he wants to go deeper into games this year. He has also talked about gaining more commend of his breaking pitches by varying speeds.

Behind Strasburg is 21-game-winner Gio Gonzalez. The Nats had high expectations for the left-hander last season after giving up several prized prospects, to an Oakland Athletics team that went on to make a surprising playoff run. But if anything, Gonzalez exceeded those lofty hopes by becoming the workhorse of the staff and a Cy Young Award finalist.

In 199 innings, he achieved career lows in earned run average (2.89), walks (76, down from an American League high 91 in 2011) and matched his career low for home runs allowed (9, tied with 2008, when he pitched only 34 innings). He also set a career high for strikeouts with 207 and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.4. He also notched the first two nine-inning complete games of his career, including a shutout of St. Louis ion Aug. 31.

Gonzalez has started off hot this spring, too. In his only start of the World Baseball Classic, he pitched five innings of shutout ball, leading the U.S. to a 7-1 win over Puerto Rico. After returning to Nationals camp, he pitched six innings against the team’s top minor league prospects, allowing seven hits and a run, striking out nine.

As they are with Strasburg and the Rest of the staff, the Nats will be looking for Gonzalez to pitch deeper into games to take some pressure off the middle relief pitchers.

Jordan Zimmermann was under the radar for most of the 2012 season because he was the hard-luck pitcher on the Nationals’ staff. Despite giving up one earned run in six of his first 10 starts, he finished May with a 3-5 record thanks to poor run support. The Nats scored more than three runs in just two of those games, both wins for Zimmermann.  In the months that followed, the tough-luck losses turned into tough-luck no decisions, but he found himself with a winning record after the All-Star break, winning six straight decisions from June 27-Aug. 9, including a torrid July, when he gave up just four earned runs over six starts, including back-to-back six-inning shutout performances.

Zimmermann finished string, too, going 3-0 in September, but was hit hard in his only postseason start, a 12-4 loss to St. Louis in which he lasted just four innings. Like the other starters, he has taken it easy for most of the spring, but turned his game up a notch right on cue, allowing just one hit over six shutout innings on Monday against the Detroit Tigers’ powerful starting lineup.

Ross Detwiler pitched himself out of the Nationals’ starting rotation at one point last season, losing his spot to Chien Ming Wang after Johnson tired if his habit of not challenging hitters. But after he bailed out Wang on several occasions, Detwiler was back in the rotation by the end of June and turned his season around, going 5-3 trough Sept. 3, including three starts where he did not allow a run.

Detwiler lost his last two regular season starts, but cemented his reputation and perhaps his spot in the 2013 rotation by tossing six sparking innings against St. Louis in game 4 of the NLDS, allowing just one unearned run on three hits and three walks in a game the Nats would win 1-0 in Jayson Werth‘s walkoff home run.

Like Gonzalez, Detwiler has spent most of the spring pitching for the U.S. team in the World Baseball classic, pitching four shutout innings in his lone appearance. In his first start back in camp for the Nationals, Detwiler thew four innings against the same Tigers lineup that Zimmermann faced, allowing three hits and a run.

The Washington Times reports that Johnson has decided to keep Detwiler in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, behind newcomer Dan Haren. At 12-13 for an underachieving Los Angeles Angels team last year, it might seem like Haren’s best days are behind him. After all, this is a pitcher who won 43 games for Oakland from 2005-2007. But his season was derailed by his first career trip to the disabled list, and has vowed to come back healthy this season.

He seemed to bear that out in the early part of spring training this season, but seemed to hit a “dead arm”period in a rough start Friday against the Cardinals.

The test of the Nationals’ rotation will be to see how consistently they can go at least seven innings, bypassing the middle relief corps to allow the strong 1-2-3 punch of Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano. But with a manager in Johnson who won’t hesitate to use a reliever in a tough situation, it remains to be seen if the starter will accomplish that goal.

Next: The Bullpen