Braves Making a Push, but the Nationals Refuse to Lose

You can never have too much pitching.

It has been said time and again, and it almost always rings true. You simply cannot win consistently if you don’t have strong pitching, but what happens when your top pitcher is barreling toward an innings limit? The dilemma approaches for Washington’s front office.

You can be sure that the majority of the Nats fan base will no doubt be outraged if Strasburg is pulled from the rotation once he hits his limit, while Braves fans will have the opposite reaction. Strasburg himself said the Nationals would have to “rip the ball out of his hands.” It’s hard to blame him for making such a comment, but the decision may really be out of his hands soon (pun intended) as Jayson Stark writes today.

If you’re a Braves fan (like myself), it’s nice to see the Braves hitting their stride, but also frustrating to see the Nationals match them every step of the way. Indeed, the Braves are 17-9 since the All Star break, but the Nationals have “one-upped” that with a 19-9 mark. Neither team could make any headway in the two team’s previous meeting where they split a four-game series. Atlanta was 3.5 games behind Washington before the series, but now they are 4.5 games back.

Coming into the 2012 season, the Nationals were dubbed by many as *the* team to watch for. The pieces were certainly there, but I took more of a conservative approach and felt they were about a year away from truly making noise in the NL East. I also picked the Phillies to place 2nd, and if not for losing Lee early on and getting a sub-par season from Doc Halladay, maybe they would be battling Atlanta for 2nd place right now.

We’re in August now, and the Nationals proved long ago that they are legitimate players for the 2012 NL East crown, though it remains to be seen if their front office will hold true to their original plan of limiting Strasburg’s innings to 160 innings pitched. He’s currently at 127.1 innings pitched and is slated for three more starts this month. If he averages six innings per start, he’ll be at 145.1 by the end of this month, which would have him reaching his innings cap in early September. If you ask me, it’s not about restricting the innings — rather, it’s his delivery that is hazardous to his health as a pitcher, but I’m not a medical expert (that’s a topic reserved for another day).

The Nationals pitching staff has no doubt been the key to their success, as they lead the majors in ERA (3.24) and FIP (3.53). Their starters also lead the majors in ERA and are third in wins, behind the Rangers and Cardinals. Washington’s bullpen has been slightly above average for the majority of the season, but not as dominant — especially of late — as you would expect to find from a division-leading team, though it is certainly an improved ‘pen with Drew Storen making his return. The “addition” of Storen gives the Nats a legitimate 7-8-9 combo that can rival most teams out there, and with their staff that’s about all you need.

The question, and it is one that has been debated countless times, is how will the Nationals respond if/when Strasburg exits the rotation. Sure, they still have Gio, Zimmerman, and Jackson — but that’s hardly a rotation that’s deep enough to carry them over a month (and especially into the playoffs) against good competition with the Braves breathing down their necks. The Braves and Nationals will have two more meetings in the regular season (Aug. 20-22, Sept. 14-16), and the Braves have the considerably easier schedule of the two down the stretch.

Atlanta will face two teams (Nationals, Pirates) in the month of September with a record over .500. They do get the Mets and Phillies twice, and those teams are no easy foe, but the Phillies aren’t nearly as dangerous as they used to be and the Mets are fading. The Nationals, however, get to face the Cardinals twice, the Braves once, and the Dodgers once in the month of September — and that’s in addition to also facing the Mets and Phillies (closing with Phillies/Cards/Phillies).

If Washington is without their young ace, it will absolutely affect them down the stretch if the Braves continue to win at their current pace. Will the Nats have enough in the tank, or will they fade after losing a dominant starter every fifth day?  The schedule favors Atlanta, but as of right now the Nationals keep winning and that’s about all that matters for the time being.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment box below. You can e-mail me suggestions or questions at jtmcadams@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoeSportswriter.

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