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Amid injuries to offensive stars, the Washington Nationals’ rotation has kept them afloat

Rinse, wash, repeat.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are built around pitching. Since 2012, the team’s starters have strung together a 3.46 ERA with 5,810 strikeouts — good for second and first in the majors, respectively. It would surprise no one that the rotation is once again carrying the Nats this season, leading the National League in nearly every pitching category across the board.

Slow rehabs and persistent injuries have prevented key hitters like Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Wieters from gracing the field very much thus far — if at all. The Nats are scoring 4.45 runs per game thanks to the surprise contributions of bench players such as Matt Adams, Wilmer Difo and Mark Reynolds. But the fact that Juan Soto reached the majors less than a month after playing in Low-A ball is evidence this team has been stretched thin.

Despite the team’s 11-16 start and myriad of offensive injuries, however, its rotation has been nothing short of spectacular. Entering Tuesday, Nationals starters lead the NL in ERA (2.87), wins (23), innings (326), strikeouts (358) and WHIP (1.067). Of the 53 games Washington has played this season, its starter has gone at least five innings allowing three earned runs or less in 45 of them — including a league-high stretch of 23 games between April 28 and May 23.

Since that streak first began, the Nationals are an MLB-best 19-6. They’ve gone from six games back in the NL East to now just half a game behind the Atlanta Braves for the division lead. Murphy is nearing his return and Eaton figures to not be too far behind. Washington’s start to the season wasn’t all that convincing, but, thanks to the rotation, its best baseball may be in front of it.

Perennial ace Max Scherzer has cemented himself as the favorite to take home his fourth career Cy Young Award. The veteran right-hander is 8-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 108 strikeouts across 11 starts this season, vaulting him past Cy Young conversations and into MVP talks. Scherzer’s fWAR (2.8) is higher than that of any NL hitter and his numbers are already outpacing several starting pitchers who won MVP awards in recent years.

MVP-winning SPs over last 40 seasons — First 11 starts

Starting Pitcher Team Year IP ERA WHIP Strikeouts Opponents' OPS
Starting Pitcher Team Year IP ERA WHIP Strikeouts Opponents' OPS
Max Scherzer* WSH 2018 71.2 2.13 0.907 108 0.577
Clayton Kershaw LAD 2014 72.1 2.24 0.912 94 0.559
Justin Verlander DET 2011 79 3.42 0.962 73 0.588
Roger Clemens BOS 1986 90.2 2.38 0.938 98 0.559
*2018 season not yet complete Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference

The oft-injured Stephen Strasburg tops the Senior Circuit in innings and sits among the league leaders in strikeouts. Gio Gonzalez actually has a lower ERA than Scherzer and looks as good as he did last season when he finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting. In all, the trio of Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez has combined to allow more than three earned runs in just four starts all season.

At the back end, Tanner Roark and Jeremy Hellickson look like the best fourth and fifth starters in the game. Roark has rediscovered his even-year magic (he has a combined 2.89 ERA in 2014, 2016 and 2018 vs. a 4.08 ERA in 2013, 2015 and 2017), posting a strong 46 percent groundball rate and career-low 18.2 line-drive percentage. Hellickson seems to have taken the fact that he didn’t receive any MLB offers as a free agent last winter personally, as he’s on track to set career bests in ERA (2.13), HR/9 (0.71) and groundball rate (49 percent).

Of course, we’d be remiss not to discuss the Houston Astros, who have the league’s best rotation in 2018 no matter which way you look at it. However, Washington won’t play the reigning champions during the regular season. Their only chance to go head to head would be the World Series.

Boy, would those be some fun pitching matchups.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the Nationals have to navigate a division race that figures to be much tighter than in recent years. With their rotation pitching brilliantly and several regulars returning to the lineup in the next few weeks, the Nationals are as poised as anybody to make a run at the NL pennant.