Washington Nationals hope rotation shuffle provides path back into first


The last week or so has not been the kindest to the Washington Nationals. After sitting in the driver’s seat for a good while, they have watched their once-comfortable lead in the NL East slip away at the hands of the New York Mets.

More from Call to the Pen

They were swept by their rivals in a weekend series at Citi Field, and now find themselves a game and a half back in the division. Having made a few key upgrades to their offense and bullpen before the trade deadline, the Mets appear determined to finish the season strong and secure their first division title and postseason appearance since 2006.

The Nationals hope that the first step of getting themselves back on track will come this Saturday, as Stephen Strasburg makes his long-awaited return from the disabled list. The right-hander has been out of commission since July 4 with a left oblique strain.

Of course, Strasburg was experiencing far from his typical season before landing on the DL. Through 13 starts he was sporting a bloated 5.16 ERA and had allowed 73 hits in 61 innings pitched. His walk rate was up and strikeouts were down from a season ago. He seemed to be primarily struggling with command and an uncharacteristically hittable fastball (.305 BAA).

Washington will need Strasburg to pitch much more like his usual self upon his return to the rotation. They are hoping that full health and a month of recovery time helps him round back into form, and quickly. His final minor league rehab start was certainly promising. Strasburg took the mound for Triple-A Syracuse last Monday and struck out 11 batters in 5.2 frames. The Nats elected to bring him back up to the majors, keeping their fingers crossed that the 27-year-old hurler had rediscovered his dominant ways.

To make room for Strasburg in the rotation, manager Matt Williams announced that Doug Fister will move to the bullpen. It’s a sorely disappointing blow for Fister, who not long ago was in the same situation as Strasburg, hoping to contribute after an extended DL stint. Unfortunately for the towering righty, he just never really found a groove upon returning from a flexor strain injury. In eight starts since being reactivated in mid-June, Fister has a 4.86 ERA. Opponents are slashing a hearty .312/.350/.484 against him in that span. He served up three home runs in his last start against Arizona on August 3.

Overall, Fister owns an unwieldy 4.60 ERA on the season, a 1.42 WHIP and a lagging 2.67 K/BB ratio. His results have been a far cry from those of a year ago, when he posted a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts and garnered some Cy Young votes. Due to become a free agent in the offseason, Fister will hope to get himself sorted out and earn another chance before the end of the year.

Fister’s demotion, however, is also a testament to the stellar performance of rookie Joe Ross. The 22-year-old has been tremendous, boasting a 2.80 ERA over seven starts. In 45 innings he has allowed 37 hits while striking out 47 and walking just four. The Nats and their fans will absolutely want to see more of him, so making Fister the odd man out for the time being was really the only possible choice.

Strong starting pitching has been a mainstay of the Nationals in recent times, and though their rotation ranks in the top third of MLB with a 3.74 ERA, it will likely need to be even better down the stretch to keep pace with the Mets’ own impressive staff. Max Scherzer continues to put together a Cy Young-caliber season, but Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have not had the most consistent campaigns.

Adding a potentially rejuvenated Stephen Strasburg back into the mix in favor of a faltering Doug Fister could be one important card for Washington to play over the final two months of the season. Joe Ross has been an unexpected boon to the rotation, and continuing to place faith in him could also to pay significant dividends as the Nationals seek to reclaim their former spot at the pinnacle of the NL East.

Next: Nats add to bullpen with Papelbon