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Nats playing loose, getting the job done
Even with Sunday’s extra-inning loss to Philadelphia, courtesy of a blown save by Jonathan Papelbon, the Nationals are still doing quite well, thanks.
At 9-2 and four games ahead of Philadelphia, they have the best record and biggest division lead in all of baseball. That seems light years ahead of last season, when they struggled out of the gate, going 5-6 through the first 11 games.
To the untrained observer watching on TV, the biggest difference seems to be attitude – both in the dugout and on the field. The Nats are obviously a loose bunch from manager Dusty Baker on down, and it shows in the way the players are doing their jobs.
Baker is showing confidence that his players can get the job done, and it’s having a big effect on the performance of the starting pitchers. Under Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux, Nats starters have the lowest ERA in all of baseball, 1.87, a half point lower than the second-place Chicago Cubs. Dating back to last Tuesday’s win over Atlanta, the starters have surrendered just four earned runs over their past 42 1-3 innings.
Baker’s reputation has been for giving his starters long leashes, and no one has benefited more from not having to look over their shoulders when they get in trouble than Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. The biggest knock against these two in previous seasons, aside from Strasburg’s health, was that they couldn’t pitch their way out of trouble. Not so far this season.
In his two starts this season, the only run Gonzalez has surrendered was on Sunday’s solo homer by Carlos Ruiz. He stranded single runners in the first, fourth, fifth and seventh innings, and induced a double-play ball from Maikel Franco to end the sixth. In Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Atlanta, he stranded four runners, including pitching his way out of a two-on, no-out jam in the second.
Strasburg has allowed a single baserunner to score in each of his two wins over Atlanta; Reliever Felipe Rivero allowed an inherited runner to score the third run charged to Strasburg. He pitched out of a two-on, one-out spot in the 2nd inning of the April 6 win over Atlanta, and struck out Jace Peterson with runners on first and third after allowing his only run of the game. He also had help from catcher Wilson Ramos, who cut down a runner stealing second in each game.
Baker also showed confidence in Joe Ross with the bases loaded in the third inning of Friday night’s win in Philadelphia. Ross Got Franco to ground into a force play, keeping alive a scoreless innings streak that’s now at 12.
With the starters playing loose and confident, there is less pressure on the bullpen to work its way out of jams.
We can’t expect the Nats to play .818 ball for the rest of the season. They’re going to run into some good teams. But a starting staff that isn’t worrying about who’s up in the bullpen has a better chance of keeping the team in games early and keeping losing streaks to a minimum.
If Baker’s energy and confidence continue to rub off on the team, this strong start has a chance to turn into something big.