The Washington Nationals built their success in 2012 on the backs of what was the best pitching staff in the major leagues for much of the season. Inside their clubhouse they didn’t expect 2013 to be much different.
After all, four of their starting pitchers were returning and their one newcomer was a veteran with a significantly successful track record. And they have power arms piling up in the bullpen.
But 18 straight scoreless innings to open the season?
“The stuff that they have, it’s pretty special,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez accounted for 13 of those 18 innings with their starts on Monday and Wednesday. Rafael Soriano can take credit for two while Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Ryan Mattheus can all stake their claim to one spotless inning each.
That puts them in an elite class. They’re just the 13th team in major league history to open a season with back-to-back shutouts, and the first since the Arizona Diamondbacks did it in 2002.
The 1963 St. Louis Cardinals are the only other team in history to open a season with three straight shutouts, so the Nationals will turn their eyes toward Jordan Zimmermann on Thursday.
“The bar’s set for Zim,” manager Davey Johnson said Wednesday night. “There’s always that competition among good pitching staffs, and I don’t see this year being any different.”
After watching Strasburg and Gonzalez during the 2012 season, there were few Nationals who were surprised to see them start the season the way they have.
“With the two guys we fired out there, I mean, that can happen on any given night,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “We’ve all seen it. They just dominate. That’s what they do. It’s nice to know we’ve got three guys behind ‘em who are right there, too.”
Johnson has been a little tight on his leash with his starters in the first two games, attributing his removal of Strasburg after seven to the draining nature of Opening Day and of Gonzalez after six to the frigid temperatures. But with the relievers the Nationals have, Gonzalez said the starters have little reluctance to turn the ball over.
“Our bullpen’s nice and solid out there,” Gonzalez said. “They’re just out there having fun. When you see them going out there, you want to almost test them. ‘Here, take the ball.’ You feel comfortable when you go out there and give them six and say, ‘Hey, let the bullpen go out there and finish it up.’ You feel like it’s either going to be a save or an automatic win.”
“Obviously (the pitching staff) is one of the best parts of this team,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “And for them to pick us up, with us having a lot of opportunities to drive in some runs and not getting them across right now, it’s nice for them to go out and pick us up. We’ll score some more runs, but Gio and Stevie and the bullpen last year were all great. I think all of us expect them to be great again this year.”
– Gonzalez’s performance on Wednesday night might’ve looked a little bit different if Suzuki hadn’t thrown out Juan Pierre attempting to steal second base in the third inning. Getting the Marlins’ speedy leadoff man is no easy task, but Suzuki threw a strike down to second base to end the inning and keep Gonzalez cruising.
“I think that’s the best one I’ve seen ‘Zuk put,” Gonzalez said of the throw to second baseman Danny Espinosa. “Right on the money. It’s fun to watch, especially when he’s out there, making it happen.”
The pitch was actually a curveball, which made the fact that Suzuki was able to catch and release it so quickly all the more impressive.
“It stayed up a little bit so it was kind of easier for me to throw him out on,” Suzuki said. “With Juan, he’s such a good base stealer, so you just try to put the ball on the bag and if you get him, you get him. I didn’t try to do too much.”
Last year one of the Nationals’ biggest weaknesses was holding runners and keeping runners from going wild on the basepaths against them. It was a focus of theirs in spring training, and they were pleased to see Suzuki catch Pierre on Wednesday night.
“Both catchers are great catch-and-throw guys, but he threw a perfect strike,” Johnson said. “It was great, not letting anything get going. It was outstanding.”
Suzuki was also “hit by a pitch” earlier in the game on a pitch that looked like it might’ve hit him in the chest. Extremely slow replays showed that it might not have hit him at all, though, and Suzuki admitted after the game that was the case.
“I already told the umpire, so I can tell you,” he said, a smile creeping over his face. “That was a little too close for comfort, though.”
Suzuki was hit in the hand last year on a cold night in Boston when he was still with the Oakland Athletics and he was injured on the play. He flashed back to that one for a second tonight, he said, but he was relieved to get out unscathed.