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Washington Nationals’ early summer surge thwarted by abrupt pitching struggles...

“Starting pitching is king,” is one of Nationals GM Mike Rizzo’s favorite phrases about roster construction. Lately though, pitching has been the team’s court jester...

San Diego Padres v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

June 28th was just over three weeks ago, but for the Washington Nationals, it feels like it’s miles away from where they lie now.

They woke up that day with a 37-38 record about to enter a stretch of 17 straight games against teams with a record above .500 in what many saw as a yardstick to see where the Nationals stood compared to some of the better teams in baseball.

If it was being treated as a yardstick, it wasn’t a promising one. Washington went just 6-11 in those 17 games and fell six games behind the National League East-leading New York Mets.

Yes, the Nats got very unlucky with the timing of some big injuries during that stretch of games.

Kyle Schwarber went down with a hamstring strain in the fifth game of that run and has been on the Injured List since. Trea Turner missed the entire series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan were both on the IL to start the stretch of games. Yan Gomes, Alex Avila, Joe Ross, and Tanner Rainey also landed on the IL too.

However, what let them down the most in those 17 games is what they have so frequently been known to excel in during Mike Rizzo’s tenure at the helm of the franchise: Pitching.

In that run against teams above .500, the team’s pitching staff sported an ugly 6.78 ERA and 5.36 FIP, the worst and sixth-worst respectively in the majors in that span.

Nobody was immune to the struggles. Max Scherzer posted a 6.48 ERA in his three starts, Erick Fedde had a 12.66 ERA, Patrick Corbin had a 7.31 ERA, and Jon Lester had an 8.18 ERA.

The only pitcher, starter or reliever, who had an ERA under 3.00 in that stretch was Ryne Harper.

For a franchise that often leans heavily on high-caliber pitching, particularly in the rotation, it’s nothing short of a huge disappointment to see them fall flat on their face when the team arguably needed them to step up the most this season.

“The bullpen has been used a lot,” Martinez said of his pitching staff’s struggles ahead of Monday’s series opener with the Miami Marlins.

“For our starters, I’m looking back and obviously the walks, the walks, and the two strikes.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve had a lot of hitters with two strikes, and we just haven’t been able to put them away, and you’re seeing a lot of different kinds of hits, whether it’s the ground ball [towards] third, base hits, little bloops, and things of that nature.

“So I think with two strikes we need to focus on making better pitches and not lax — that’s a put-away pitch, we need to start putting guys away with two strikes a lot better.”

As the skipper says, not being able to put away hitters when they have two strikes on them was a big issue for the Nationals in their most recent run.

Through counts with two strikes, Nationals pitchers allowed opponents to slash .216/.281/.324 against them in those 17 games, and the starters allowed a slash line of .229/.312/.337 against them in that span.

Now, at first glance, that line actually looks good for the Nationals. The catch is that it’s with two strikes, what Max Scherzer refers to as “kill counts” where a pitcher should be retiring the hitter the vast majority of times.

That shows when the league-average slash line allowed in two-strike counts this season is a measly .169/.244/.270, way below what the Nationals were surrendering in this recent stretch.

Not being able to put hitters away when they have them on the ropes has led to the starters not going deeper into games, getting the six or seven innings that the skipper usually hopes for from his pitcher. And when they can’t go deep, the Nats need more from their bullpen.

It’s the start of a vicious cycle that inevitably drags the entire staff down as a result.

“Just like hitters, pitchers can go into a funk as well,” Martinez explained. “We just need to get them back and get them straight.

“We need to get some depth from them, we need to get them out there for six innings, and I typically always tell them, ‘Hey, it would be nice for you guys to go out and get three at-bats when you start, it would be great,’ so that’s the way I approach when I want them to get deep in the games, I say, ‘Try to get three at-bats,’ and we’ll go from there.”

On the season, Nationals starters have averaged just 5.1 innings per start, right in line with the league average, despite having the highest-paid rotation in the major leagues. Then in the recent 17-game stretch, that dipped to just 4.73 innings per start.

Lester, the team’s offseason rotation acquisition, has probably been the most disappointing in that regard.

Brought in to at least be a reliable innings-eater, even if he's not the pitcher he once was, the left-hander has averaged just 4.68 innings per start this season.

“I haven’t done a very good job of that, of keeping our guys in the ballgames,” Lester explained after his start on Monday night.

“I feel like there’s been some ballgames that we should have won that I couldn’t get deeper into the game, which then exposes your bullpen.

“Any time you have to cover six innings, five innings with your bullpen it makes it very difficult for those guys.”

Lester at least showed signs of life on Monday night with seven shutout innings against the Marlins — he also clubbed a home run, which is what will inevitably get the headlines.

That can’t be a one-off for both Lester and the Nats. With the trade deadline looming in less than two weeks, if they don’t get better pitching to support their resurgent offense, it could see them drop further out of the postseason race and give the front office tough decisions.

Mercifully, their schedule does lighten up to close out the month of July. They have six games against Miami and the Baltimore Orioles this week.

They’re followed by two series with the Philadelphia Phillies bookending a three-game set with the Chicago Cubs.

The Nationals know that their pitching is their bread and butter.

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“I’ve said this before,” Martinez said after Monday’s win, “when our pitching gives us some length, our starting pitching, the back end of our bullpen is going to be good.

“The guys in the middle have been getting a beating because they’ve been used a lot, but they’re going to be fine, and we’re starting to swing the bats all the way through our lineup.

“So we’re going to have a fun time, we really are, and we’re going to win some games.”