© 2012 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
PITTSBURGH -- They range in age from 23 to 28, they all rank among the top 20 hardest-throwing starters in the National League, and together they've compiled a staff ERA worthy of the dead-ball era.
So to say the members of the youthful, powerful and altogether successful Nationals starting rotation -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler -- are enjoying themselves in the early going of 2012 would be an understatement.
And the bonds being formed run just as deep as the results.
"We always seem to be together," said Detwiler, a late-spring entrant into the starting squad, "whether it be in the locker room, off the field, whatever. It's something I've never experienced before in a pitching staff. And it pushes us every day to be better than the person that was throwing the day before."
Sometimes, that's quite a tall task.
After all, Strasburg (1.64), Gonzalez (1.72), Detwiler (2.10) and Zimmermann (2.29) each rank among the top 25 in the Majors in starters' ERA. Jackson (3.49), the hired hand brought aboard on a one-year contract, is the only member of the staff who has given up more than four runs in any single outing, and, for that matter, the only one to post something other than a quality start in a 17-game stretch that began on April 20.
The Nats' starting staff, which has, by far, the lowest ERA (2.24) in baseball, is the reason the long-suffering club has been a first-place factor from the get-go in 2012, carrying the weight as an injury-addled offense struggles to score.
And the success of the starters is due, in large measure, to the steadying influence of pitching coach Steve McCatty, who, in lieu of overloading these men with information, presses a single premise upon them:
Don't walk anybody.
It's a premise McCatty himself learned the value of when pitching for the A's in the late '70s and early '80s. He went the distance in 45 of his 161 starts, including one 14-inning outing against the Mariners in 1980.
"Base hits, home runs, errors happen," McCatty said. "You can't control that. But throwing the ball over the plate? That's something you can control a little bit and you have a responsibility for. So make them put the ball in play. Put it on [your opponent]. Take your chances."
The Nationals were willing to take their chances with this young crew after overtures toward their top free-agent target, Mark Buehrle, fell flat. Buehrle's proven track record and veteran presence would have been welcomed by the Nats' staff, but, by instead giving up four Minor League pieces for the 26-year-old Gonzalez, Washington has a young man who is establishing himself as one of the more successful lefties in the game.
"With Gio, he's just kind of scratching the surface on what he can do," McCatty said. "It's fun watching him. If we would have gotten Buehrle, great. But we were able to get Gio, and he's been outstanding. I love the energy he brings."
The energy when Strasburg takes the mound is electric, for the 23-year-old coming off Tommy John surgery is the only starter in baseball averaging 96 mph with his fastball, according to FanGraphs.com, and he's harnessed enough command to emerge as one of the game's best starters in the early going.
At some point this summer, Strasburg will be shut down to preserve his arm from the post-surgery wear and tear, repeating the plan that was put in place for another Tommy John recipient, Zimmermann, a year ago. But while the Strasburg situation will loom overhead until the plug is pulled (and McCatty said his pitch counts are, perhaps, more important than his innings tally), his rotation mates are clearly doing their parts to ensure that the staff runs deep enough to eventually account for his absence. And more help is on the way once Chien-Ming Wang gets healthy or if John Lannan is summoned from Triple-A.
"These guys all compete," McCatty said. "They're good guys, they get along great. They don't want to be the guy who gets beat up -- or the 'weak link' as [Jackson] calls it. So there's that competitiveness they have amongst themselves. 'Strasburg does this? Well, then I want to do this.' It's a good thing to have, and I think it's what everybody wants in their rotation."
With the competitiveness comes a chemistry that is evident when you watch the starters interact with each other.
"I'm a big believer," said Strasburg, "that when you have good team chemistry, it definitely affects your play on the field."
On the field, Nats starters have allowed a Major League-low 10 home runs. To put that in perspective, there are four individuals -- Ervin Santana, Colby Lewis, Clay Buchholz and Tommy Hunter -- who have allowed at least that many this season.
But the Nats' arms could serve up more long shots and still not draw the ire of McCatty, provided they keep limiting the walks. Thus far, they've walked just 2.24 batters per nine innings, the third-lowest mark in the Majors.
"I don't try to put any pressure on 'em," McCatty said. "I let 'em go pitch. I don't make them do things they're not capable of doing. I say, 'Here's your weakness and his strength.' If a pitcher's strength is a fastball and the hitters' strength is a fastball, am I going to throw them all changeups? No. Like I said, I'll take my chances."
Before the season began, manager Davey Johnson said he would stack his starters against any in the game, including the vaunted Phillies threesome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. It's still early, of course, but Johnson's bold statement has been validated, and what makes it all the more special for the Nats is that their top three starters -- Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann -- are under contractual control through at least 2015.
"They're going to be together for a long, long time," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "They're going to grow together and have a friendly competition with each other. It's an outstanding group, ability-wise and makeup-wise."
And they're just getting started.