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What’s with the Washington Nationals’ starting pitchers?

Starting pitching is the Nationals’ hallmark, but it hasn’t come together for the veteran rotation this season.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals
Patrick Corbin, like the other Nationals starting pitchers this season, is looking for consistency. He struck out nine, but allowed eight hits, including Miguel Rojas’ second-inning, three-run homer, to fall to 2-2 on the season.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Corbin clearly wasn’t himself in the first two innings of Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Miami Marlins, but then again, what Nationals’ starter has been himself this season?

In a normal year, it might be premature to judge a team’s starting pitching 20 games into the season. But nothing about 2020 is normal, so here we are examining the effectiveness of the pitching staff of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals, 22 games into a 60-game season.

Corbin was the man Davey Martinez called out of the bullpen on multiple occasions in the 2019 postseason, in between starting assignments, going 2-1 with a 3.91 ERA in 23 innings, winning games in the NLCS and World Series and tossing a crucial scoreless 1 13 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ lefty-heavy lineup in the extra-inning Game 5 NLDS victory.

This season, it looked as if Corbin had shaken off the COVID-delay rust after two starts, when he put together a pair of wins against the New York Mets, working around 13 hits in a cumulative 11 23 innings to go 2-0 on the season. But in losing to Baltimore, he allowed eight hits and five runs in in five innings, and against Miami, he fell victim to the same thing that has plagued other Nats’ starters this season, the poorly-timed home run.

In the second inning, he uncharacteristically followed a one-out hit with a walk, then gave up a two-out homer to Miguel Rojas in his first at-bat after 26 days of quarantine. Despite coming back to strike out nine, but again, allowing eight hits, Corbin was on the hook for his record to drop to 2-2 when he left in the seventh.

After the game, manager Davey Martinez said he was happy with Corbin’s start overall.

“He made one bad mistake it cost him the three runs, but other than that he was really, really good,” said the manager.

Corbin believes the staff in general is getting strong enough to go deeper into games.

“It obviously helps when we’re able to. I think now a lot of us are built up to go 100-plus pitches,” Corbin said.

“You always want to finish that seventh inning, or finish the inning you go out in.”

But on a team that won multiple division titles and a World Series on the strength of starting pitching, Corbin isn’t the only starter who has struggled this season. Aníbal Sánchez hasn’t seen the sixth inning in an 0-3 campaign with an 8.50 ERA and a more-than-generous 2.11 WHIP. Those may look like misprints in any other season, but Sánchez has yet to find any kind of rhythm in 2020. He’s never allowed fewer than six hits or three earned runs in a game, he’s given up a team high five homers, and opponents are hitting .349 against him.

Sánchez has said he feels just as good as he did when he came off the injured list last season and went 10-2 in the season’s final four months to help secure a wild card spot in the postseason. But he acknowledged after his Aug. 12 loss to the Mets that he struggling to find a rhythm this season.

“I don’t know if it’s the factor that we didn’t have a regular Spring Training, or sequence on my rotation or my outings. At the end, most of the people want to see like a really good result, but for sure I need to prepare better for the next one,” Sanchez said.

We haven't gotten to the Cy Young Award-winning portion of the Nats’ rotation yet, and there’s Max Scherzer, tied with the struggling Corbin for the team lead in wins at two. He has literally put himself together on the mound in winning his last two games against Baltimore and the New York Mets. But in the other three games Scherzer has started this season, including his one-inning, injury-shortened start against the Mets on August 5th, he’s allowed five runs on 10 hits and eight walks, with only one scoreless start. Although he’s allowed four homers this season, three of them came Sunday against the Orioles, in a game the team came back and won for him.

After that game, Scherzer said Stephen Strasburg’s potentially season-ending injury offers opportunities for other players.

“It’s just an opportunity for other guys to step up,” he said. “[Erick] Fedde can step up.

“Here’s opportunities for other guys that you might not have thought could really do some big things for us.”

With Strasburg likely out for the season, that brings us to the most consistent Nationals’ starter this season, Fedde. The right-hander is 1-1, but he’s won games as both a starter and out of the bullpen and his 2.55 ERA leads all starters because he’s kept the ball in the park. He’s allowed only two homers this season, and none in his last three starts. Fedde still struggles with command, though. His nine walks are second on the team to Scherzer’s 11, but Fedde has pitched only 18 innings to Scherzer’s 26 23 IP.

After coming out of the bullpen to get the win following Strasburg’s injury, Fedde said he adjusted well to a heavy workload of 7 13 innings in two appearances over three days.

“Actually I felt pretty good. I guess that’s uncharted territory for me, in this sense,” he said. “But luckily I was able to be really efficient and get through that.”

Austin Voth is 0-2 in four starts, none longer than five innings, and only one scoreless start. He keeps the bases relatively clean with a 1.44 WHIP, but his five home runs is tied with Sánchez for team high. He has neither distinguished himself this season nor pitched himself out of the job.

So we’ve run through the Washington Nationals’ starting pitching a little more than a third of the way through the season, and none of the Nats’ pitchers is listed among the MLB leaders in any category. That’s certainly surprising on a team with the Nationals’ reputation for strong starting pitching.

Just because Strasburg may not pitch again this year doesn’t mean the season is a bust. Scherzer has an opportunity for a dominant start Saturday against the Marlins, and he has the charisma to spark the rest of the staff. Corbin showed signs of life with nine strikeouts in his losing effort Friday, and Sánchez has ample opportunity to turn his game around.

Corbin sees deeper starts in the future for himself and the other Nats’ starters.

“That’s my goal every start, so you just try to go out there, be reliable, go as deep as you can, and with our offense and the way our bullpen has been pitching, we’re going to start winning some games,” he said.

The on-and-off spring training and the delayed start of the season have taken their toll on pitching throughout baseball, so the Nats aren’t the only team with surprisingly struggling pitching. But teams that do develop consistent starting pitching will have an advantage in a short season. A veteran staff like the Nats’ is as good a candidate to do that as any.