The Washington Times - February 27, 2011, 06:49PM

VIERA, Fla.

Take in a Little League game anywhere – from Williamsport to Walla Walla – and you’re likely to hear a coach tell his pitcher: “Let ’em hit it.” Few hurlers, after all, are blessed with blinding velocity. Most get by with location, movement, changes of speed and, if necessary, a dab of saliva.

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In the majors it’s called Pitching to Contact, and it doesn’t always have the most flattering connotation. Indeed, it’s often a euphemism for “lacks dazzling stuff” or even “can’t break a pane of glass” – among those, at least, who rate pitchers by their radar readings and strikeout totals.

On the Nationals, though, Pitching to Contact is alive and well – especially with Stephen Strasburg, the supersonic one, temporarily out of commission. Pitching coach Steve McCatty swears by the strategy, and many of his starters are of the let-’em-hit-it persuasion. In fact, if the rotation shakes out a certain way, Washington could be the Pitching to Contact capital of the world this summer.

Consider: Only five pitchers in the last five years have thrown 200 innings in a season and averaged fewer than four strikeouts per nine innings. Three of them are on the Washington roster: John Lannan (who did it in 2009), Livan Hernandez (’07 with the Diamondbacks) and Chien-Ming Wang (’06 with the Yankees).

“Jordan Zimmerman is going to strike out guys, and so will Stephen [when he returns],” McCatty said Sunday at Space Coast Stadium, “but I want the ball put in play. Sure, there are situations where you might need a strikeout, but those are few and far between.”

The benefits of such an approach are obvious: It keeps your pitch count down, and it enables you to go deeper into games (that is, as long as your pitches aren’t getting pulverized). As McCatty puts it, “The more pitches a batter sees, the better chance he has of getting a hit off you, so …” why not throw the darn thing over?

Lannan has been pitching that way his entire life. It was something his father Ed, his first coach, instilled in him. “Pitch to contact, make your ball move, trust your stuff and good things will happen” was his dad’s mantra, the Nats’ lefty said.

And good things have happened for Lannan. He broke into the bigs at 22 and became a fixture in the rotation a year later. But pitchers who Let ’Em Hit It walk a fine line. If they start missing their spots, they can quickly end up back in the minors, as Lannan did for a spell last summer.

It’s one of the reasons baseball people are so infatuated with flamethrowers – pitchers who can get hitters out all by themselves. Three of every 10 batted balls go for a hit, they figure, so if you can just reduce the number of batted balls … . The problem is, hitters these days are exhibiting so much patience that fireballers who struggle with their control can reach their pitch limit before the sixth inning. (Sad but true: There were 216 games last season in which a pitcher was relieved after throwing 100 or more pitches in five innings or less.)

Make no mistake, you can be very successful Pitching to Contact. Wang won a league-leading 19 games pitching like that. Randy Jones (among others) won the Cy Young pitching like that. And Bob Lemon made it to the Hall of Fame pitching like that. (Also, lest we forget, Tommy John had a surgery named after him pitching like that.

But if you’re going to have a whole staff of let-’em-hit-it types, as the Nationals might, you need to back them with a strong defense, because the ball will be put in play plenty. And the Nats were hardly Web Gem Central last year; they tied for last in the National League with 127 errors.

General manager Mike Rizzo is trying to fix that, though. The addition of first baseman Adam LaRoche and right fielder Jayson Werth, for instance, should improve the glove work at those two spots. Danny Espinosa, meanwhile, is expected to be an upgrade at second base in his first full season, as are Roger Bernadina and Mike Morse in left (after moving over from right to accommodate Werth). If Ian Desmond can cut down on his E’s – he had a major-league leading 34 a year ago – the Nats could provide their pitchers with much better support.

“It’s important [with such a staff] to have range defensively and make plays all over the field,” manager Jim Riggleman said, “And we feel like we should be able to do it.”

Butterfly nets, of course, would also help. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

200 INNINGS PITCHED AND FEWER THAN 4 STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS (SINCE 2006)

2009 John Lannan, Nationals (206.1 IP, 3.88 SO/9)

2007 Livan Hernandez, Diamondbacks (204.1 IP, 3.96 SO/9)

2007 Carlos Silva, Twins (202 IP, 3.97 SO/9)

2006 Aaron Cook, Rockies (212.2 IP, 3.89 SO/9)

2006 Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees (218 IP, 3.14 SO/9)