Starting to pay dividends

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Jim Bowden gets a lot of grief for his oft-uttered, rarely executed philosophy that teams win in baseball with “pitching, pitching, pitching,” but the Washington Nationals general manager is right.

No team can have enough pitching, and the Nationals are learning that these days. A starting rotation that already was a huge question mark entering the season has managed to keep this team competitive despite a swath of injuries few clubs could overcome.

Seriously, if told in advance that John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Jerome Williams and Mike O’Connor all would miss a minimum of six weeks, who would have believed Washington would continue to play quality baseball?

The Nationals haven’t plummeted into a bottomless pit, of course, because of the work they have gotten from fill-in starters like Micah Bowie, Mike Bacsik and Jason Simontacchi, plus the encouraging development of rookie Matt Chico.

And now it looks like they’re going to need those guys a bit longer than expected. Hill is going to Birmingham, Ala., to have his right elbow examined by the esteemed James Andrews, who rarely looks at a pitcher without ultimately operating on him. And now Patterson is being shut down so he can visit several doctors to find out once and for all what’s causing the pain in his throwing arm.

The only good injury news the Nationals received over the last week was that Bergmann has recovered from his sore elbow and is ready to start tonight against the Braves in Atlanta, a welcome development for a club that sorely needed one of its top starters to return.

Such is the nature of pitching in the major leagues, though. No one makes it through a full season with only five starters. Few can make it with only 10. It’s vitally important for organizations to stockpile enough pitching depth to get them through the tough times. Give the Nationals credit for realizing this.

As much as they were mocked during spring training for having upward of a dozen rotation candidates, those seemingly excessive numbers now are paying dividends. If neither Patterson nor Hill pitches again this season, the Nationals should be able to fill the void.

If anything, Washington may have too many pitching options at its disposal by the end of the summer. In addition to the guys in the major league rotation, right-handers Joel Hanrahan and Emiliano Fruto continue to pitch well at Class AAA Columbus and state their cases for promotion.

Left-hander John Lannan already has been promoted twice this season (from Class A Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg and then from Harrisburg to Columbus), appears to be on the fast track to Washington and could be pitching at RFK Stadium within a month or two.

Right behind him is Collin Balester, the organization’s top-rated prospect who remains at Harrisburg but could be in line for a promotion himself.

And the sooner first-round pick Ross Detwiler signs a contract, the better the odds he will make it through the farm system by September.

It’s not too far-fetched to think the Nationals could field a starting five of Bergmann, Chico, Lannan, Balester and Detwiler by season’s end. No one could have foreseen that back in March, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

This season is all about identifying pieces for the future, and all five of those guys could become key figures down the road.

Then again, the last thing the Nationals should do right now is pencil those guys into the 2008 rotation. History suggests more than one of them will develop arm troubles, just as the guys before them did.

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