Even without Strasburg, Nationals boast formidable rotation

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WASHINGTON -- Construct a competitive playoff rotation for a contender, and you might start with a hard-throwing righthander who is second in his league in ERA and who boasts a gaudy strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Behind him, you could do worse than a two-time All-Star lefty with giddy-up on his fastball, which he mixes with a knee-buckling curve to rank second in wins and in strikeout rate and 12th in ERA.

Maybe the third starter would be a World Series-winning righthander, the one with the devastating slider, the no-hitter and 22 innings of playoff experience, who this year sits among the top-20 in WHIP and strikeouts.

Nowadays almost every team uses a fourth starter in the postseason, and a club would do well to give those innings to an up-and-coming lefthander with the best groundball rate in the bunch, who has emerged from nowhere to join the league's top-15 in ERA and WHIP.

This, of course, is not a hypothetical exercise, but the alignment of the rotation for the NL East-leading Nationals once ace Stephen Strasburg reaches his innings limit and gets shutdown after two or three more starts.

With Strasburg, the Nationals have the majors' best starting pitcher ERA of 3.27. Subtract Strasburg's contributions this year, and the Nationals still have the majors' best starters' ERA at 3.32. (The Rays are second at 3.49.)

Judging by their performance credentials rather than their not-so-familiar names -- Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler -- Washington, the only team with a winning record every month this season, remains in good shape to make a deep run in the postseason.

"Even without Strasburg," one NL scout said, "they have as good a chance as anybody to win the National League."

This is not to take any stance as to whether the Nationals should or shouldn't shut down Strasburg, a topic already argued to infinity and back, but to acknowledge the seeming inevitability that it's happening and to asses the club's chances once it does.

And it's certainly not a suggestion that losing Strasburg is anything but a blow to the club's chances, mostly from the practical level of not having one's best starter but also from the psychological edge that comes with starting a series with a dominant pitcher.

"Obviously Stras is the ace of the rotation," Gonzalez said. "He deserves that recognition on our staff. He's a guy who's made a great name for himself. But the big picture is that we all have been playing a big piece in this, and Stras has been key to that rotation. We've got that kind of staff where we might lose one [but] we have four other guys that are willing to go out there and step it up for him.

"It's hard to replace a guy like Strasburg. It's hard to just overlook him and say, 'Wait, we've got other guys.' He's a big-name guy who's been a big part of this winning season for us."

Strasburg, who is 15-6 with a 3.05 ERA and an NL-leading 186 strikeouts, is Washington's best pitcher. But he's not their only elite pitcher.

Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty said he believed all the attention on Strasburg -- given his ability and the unique shutdown -- has "overshadowed everybody else."

"It takes the pressure off the rest of us," Detwiler said. "Coming to the field everyday, we know what's going to be said on TV or whatever. We kind of fly under the radar, and a few of us like that."

While Strasburg has the No. 1 average fastball velocity among NL starters, according to FanGraphs, the four remaining starters are Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 10 -- hard-throwers with good results, judging by the littering of Nationals on the leaderboards. All five of their starters are in the top-16 in the league in both ERA and WHIP. Strasburg's presumed replacement and the fifth starter for the rest of September, John Lannan, is 2-0 with a 3.46 ERA in 13 innings and has spent four years in the big league rotation.

"Zimmermann really gets lost in the weeds, but he's got great stuff," McCatty said. "He has great command. He's got quick arm speed. The ball plays faster than the velocity reads on the board. He's got an outstanding slider -- it's a plus slider. He doesn't use his curveball as much, but that's a plus pitch also. And he uses his changeup at times."

While Zimmermann may not be a household name, the baseball world surely knows his repertoire.

"I'm a big fan of Jordan Zimmermann," the scout said. "He has zero hype, but the difference between him and Strasburg is not that much. One's a 1A that touches 97, and the other's a 1A that touches 96. Both of these guys have dominant stuff, and Gio Gonzalez has dominant stuff."

On Thursday night Jackson showed his potential, as he went eight innings and allowed only one unearned run while striking out 10 to beat the Cardinals, the league's highest-scoring offense. The scout raved about his swing-and-miss slider, though noted that Jackson can be inconsistent. But Jackson is the only starter with playoff experience, having reached the World Series in 2008 with the Rays and won a title last year with St. Louis.

The rotation's big revelation this season has been Detwiler, a tall lefty who has cleaned up his delivery, according to the scout, helping him get more velocity on his fastball, which now averages 92.7 mph, seventh-best among all major league lefties. McCatty said Detwiler can touch 96 but won't always throw that four-seam fastball because of his sinker, which was the pitch Zimmermann raved about.

Detwiler thanked the defense behind him and credited the other four starters with helping him learn more about pitching this year than his four previous seasons combined, especially the urging to always pound the zone with strikes. "Just attack and put the ball in the hitter's court," he said of the lesson. "You're going to have to hit. It's going to be out of a pitcher's count, so you're going to have to hit out of a pitcher's count and hit my pitch."

Said the scout: "He's got a little bit of tail action. He's more of a mix guy than a movement/contact guy. He's got a plus curveball, and when he gets that over, he's very good. He's not afraid to pitch inside. He's got a very usable changeup. He's a solid guy that for me could probably be a No. 3 at some point in his career."

An ancillary impact of Strasburg's absence is that both Jackson and Detwiler will be in the rotation, instead of manager Davey Johnson getting to choose one to start and using the other in the bullpen.

After all, if there are any issues with the rotation -- and this would be true with or without Strasburg -- they are the lack of postseason experience beyond Jackson and that Washington hasn't gotten much length from its starters, who rank 11th in innings while the bullpen has logged the second-most.

The Nationals have had to cover more sixth and seventh innings than most clubs would hope, but the bullpen has held its own. Five relievers have thrown at least 49 innings; four have an ERA below 2.75 and the other has a still-impressive 3.25.

"Our bullpen has been our biggest key to all of our success," Gonzalez said.

With that bullpen supporting the four remaining starters, Washington's pitching still matches up well with the staff of any other contender. Even with the end of Strasburg's season imminent in the next two weeks or so, it's hard to get the staff to think beyond the here and now in this game of inescapable routine.

"We're just trying to finish strong here," Zimmermann said.

He was speaking of the regular season and of staving off the Braves in the division but, even without Strasburg, the Nationals have a chance to finish strong in the playoffs, too.