No margin for error? No problem

No margin for error? No problem
April 18, 2012, 3:40 am
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As the tying run stood on second base, Brad Lidge still needing to record three outs before letting that runner advance 180 feet, hardly anybody inside the Nationals dugout or in the field began to worry they might not pull off this 1-0 victory over the Astros.

"I was calm and collected out there," center fielder Jayson Werth said. "I knew he had it all the way."

"It was exciting," said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, even though his seven-inning gem was on the verge of being blown up. "I have all the confidence in the world in our bullpen. I wouldn't trade anything in the world for these guys."

Piece of cake, right? Well, not for everyone in a Nationals uniform.

"I mean, it's not easy on me," manager Davey Johnson said. "But ... we actually like it when it's close like that. It puts more on every at-bat, every pitch. We're playing games kind of like in a pennant race. And that's good for later on in the season. Good teams win close ballgames."

Guess that makes the Nationals a good team, because they only seem to play close ballgames these days, and they're winning the vast majority of them. Tonight's 1-0 nailbiter -- in which Lidge escaped his self-made jam in the top of the ninth -- was their fourth 1-run victory already this season.

The formula for success hasn't changed one bit since Opening Day: 1) Get a fantastic performance from the starting pitcher, 2) Scratch and claw for the bare minimum number of runs necessary to win, 3) Leave the outcome in the hands of perhaps baseball's best bullpen.

It has worked like a charm nine times in 12 games, and it has the Nationals in a somewhat comfortable position atop the NL East, now a full 1 12 games better than anyone else in the division.

The pertinent question, then, has become this: Can they actually sustain this style of baseball, eking out tense, low-scoring victories over the course of six months?

"I think it is sustainable for this team," Lidge said. "Obviously we're not going to win every game 1-0, but I think it's sustainable for the simple fact that our rotation is so good."

It's tough to dispute that notion, not when you consider the track record the Nationals' five starters are building on a nightly basis. Gonzalez's gem tonight merely added to the growing lore of the aptly named "K Street" rotation, which now boasts a 1.69 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and is striking out 8.44 batters per nine innings.

(Just for comparison's sake: In his career, Justin Verlander has struck out 8.31 batters per nine innings, a rate worse than the average member of the Nationals' current rotation.)

We're running out of superlatives to describe each outing by what statistically has been the majors' best starting unit. Under normal circumstances, Gonzalez's seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball tonight would have qualified as the best performance of the young season. But how can that be rated higher than Edwin Jackson's 92-pitch, complete game on Saturday? Or even Gonzalez's comparable, seven-inning two-hitter in Thursday's home opener?

"Awful good stuff. Awful good arms," Johnson said in describing his entire rotation's dominance. "And we knew that from before we even started to play games, just from watching them throw in the 10-pack bullpen at spring training. I knew my guys had great stuff. It's an outstanding rotation."

The Nationals have needed their rotation to be so good, because their lineup's frequent struggles have left no margin of error, as was the case tonight when they put multiple men on base in only one inning.

Fortunately, that mini-rally in the bottom of the fourth -- featuring Werth's bloop double to shallow center field and Adam LaRoche's bloop single to shallow left field -- was enough to push across the game's lone run.

The Nationals have scored three or fewer runs in six of their 12 games to date. Incredibly, they've won four of those.

"You know, I wouldn't read too much into it," Werth said. "We're 12 games into the season. Wins are wins at this point. We'll take 'em how we can get 'em. Pitching good, playing good D. Think the offense is there. We're playing good enough to win, so that's all that matters."

Yep. Nobody inside that clubhouse was agonizing over the lack of offense tonight, not after pulling out yet another nip-and-tuck victory.

Besides, why bother scoring more than one run when your pitching staff is going to put another zero on the board?