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'Insane' pitching leads Nats again

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'Insane' pitching leads Nats again

He's been the Nationals' No. 4 starter, technically speaking, since Opening Day. There is nothing about Edwin Jackson, however, that resembles a No. 4 starter.

Fourth starters don't boast a 2.91 ERA in late-June. Fourth starters don't boast a 1.04 WHIP. Fourth starters don't have seven consecutive quality starts.

And fourth starters don't carry a perfect game into the fifth inning and a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning as Jackson did Saturday night during a 3-1 victory over the Orioles.

"That's insane," closer Tyler Clippard said. "It makes us smile. ... I just can't imagine what those other teams are thinking when Edwin is our fourth guy. It's a joke. He's probably the No. 1 starter on more than half the teams in the league."

Actually, Clippard is spot-on with that assessment. There are 15 major-league rotations right that do not include one starter with a sub-3.00 ERA. Ergo, Jackson would lead exactly one-half of big-league clubs in ERA at this moment.

And it's not like the Nationals aren't getting anything out of their top three starters. Quite the contrary. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann all claim similar (and in many cases better) stats to Jackson, giving the Nats as formidable a rotation as there is in the game.

There have been only four big-league teams with four starters with sub-3.00 ERAs since the mound was lowered in 1969: the 1972 Orioles, Dodgers and Angels and the 1985 Dodgers. There's still a long way to go, but the 2012 Nationals could put themselves in that elite company.

"It's unbelievable," manager Davey Johnson said. "It tells you just how good they've been going. I'm impressed. Everybody's impressed."

And that doesn't even take into account the back end of the Nationals' bullpen, which has managed to survive injuries to its regular closer, its backup closer and its backup to the backup closer and still shut the door on opposing lineups late in games.

With 2 23 scoreless innings Saturday night in relief of Jackson, the trio of Michael Gonzalez (0.00 ERA), Sean Burnett (1.04 ERA) and Clippard (1.95 ERA) put forth its latest dominant performance.

Burnett has given up three earned runs all season. Clippard hasn't given up a run in 12 consecutive converted save opportunities, a span during which he's surrendered one total hit.

All of which has allowed the Nationals to withstand closer Drew Storen's season-long elbow injury.

"Without Storen, those two guys did an unbelievable job earlier in the ballgame, and certainly they've come in handy here lately," Johnson said. "They've both been workhorses."

Clippard, in fact, has been so effective since taking over closer duties one month ago that his manager no longer believes he needs to return to a setup role once Storen comes off the disabled list around the All-Star break.

"Right now, he's my closer," Johnson said. "And the way he's going, I can't see going to somebody else. They'd have to show me up here probably in a setup role before they have the opportunity to close."

Clippard, who happens to be Storen's roommate and closest friend on the team, has long hoped to be given a chance to pitch the ninth inning. He's now proven an ability not only to handle the pressure that comes with that responsibility, but to thrive under it.

"We're always in tight ballgames," Clippard said. "I think that has to do with our team, and the importance of those late innings. It really helps me bear down and focus."

It also helps to know the man who takes the mound for the first inning every single night is likely to put together a dominant outing, setting up everyone's roles in the bullpen.

Jackson certainly did that on Saturday, retiring the first 12 batters he faced before Adam Jones reached on an error in the top of the fifth. Entering the top of the seventh, Jackson (4-4) hadn't been scored upon and had surrendered only one hit, his pitch count at a very manageable 80.

The 28-year-old right-hander did this despite not feeling like he had his best "stuff" from the moment he began warming up in the bullpen.

"It was just one of those days where you don't have blow-away stuff," said Jackson, who did manage to strike out five Orioles. "You just have to go out and pitch. That's pretty much what it was from the time I started throwing the pen, I knew what kind of day it would be. It's not my first time getting through it, so you kind of know how to handle the situation."

By the seventh inning, Jackson actually started to feel better, yet he was less effective for it. He served a hanging slider over the plate to Jones to lead off the inning and watched as the ball was scorched off the left-field foul pole for a home run. A flyball to the warning track and two singles later, Jackson was out of the game.

Not that he needed to worry about the guys who entered from the bullpen to pick him up. These days, anybody who toes the rubber wearing a Nationals uniform is likely to have success.

"That's the mentality we all have when we take the field: To be the better pitcher that day," Jackson said. "It's just one those things when the team is rolling and everything is going good, everybody is positive and everybody is taking the field with a positive approach. And it's just showing in the way we play right now."

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

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Nationals baffled by Dickey's knuckleball in Braves' 3-2 win

ATLANTA  -- R.A. Dickey frustrated Washington with his knuckleball for eight innings, Ozzie Albies had three hits and the Atlanta Braves beat the Nationals 3-2 on Thursday night.

After Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff homer in the second inning, the 42-year-old Dickey gave up only one hit -- a two-out single by Trea Turner in the third -- over the next five innings. Turner was picked off first base.

Dickey (10-10) gave up two runs, four hits and no walks. He made a strong case that the Braves should pick up his $8 million club option for 2018.

Zimmerman lined his homer into the left-field seats, tying the game at 1. He set a career high with his 34th homer, his fourth off Dickey this season.

Arodys Vizcaino struck out the side in a perfect ninth for his 12th save in 15 chances. It was a strong return to form after Vizcaino walked all three batters he faced in a blown save Wednesday night.

The Braves scored two runs in the fourth off Tanner Roark (13-10). Albies singled, moved to third on catcher Matt Wieters' wild pickoff attempt and scored the go-ahead run on Freddie Freeman's fly ball to deep left field. Nick Markakis doubled past Zimmerman at first base and scored on Johan Camargo's single up the middle.

The Nationals trimmed the Braves' lead to one in the eighth. Anthony Rendon doubled to left field and scored on Wieters' two-out single.

Ender Inciarte continued his push for 200 hits when he led off the first with a triple to right field. It was his 191st hit, the third-highest total in the majors. Inciarte scored on Albies' single.

The game was delayed several minutes in the middle of the eighth. There was confusion as Nationals manager Dusty Baker attempted to make several defensive changes and had to go over the changes with home plate umpire Nic Lentz, who also took questions from Braves manager Brian Snitker.

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Ryan Zimmerman sets career high in homers vs. Braves

Ryan Zimmerman sets career high in homers vs. Braves

Ryan Zimmerman's resurgent season continues to get more and more impressive. 

Zimmerman hit his 34th home run of the season on Thursday night, setting a new career high. 

His previous career high was set in 2009, when he hit 33 while slashing .292/.364/.525 with a .888 OPS. 

He didn't get cheated on it, either: 

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