BALTIMORE — It was almost five months ago now that Edwin Jackson chose the Washington Nationals. Considered one of the top free-agent starters on the market, he looked at what they had in their rotation and in their bullpen and thought being titled No. 4 in D.C. might be better than being a No. 1 or a No. 2 anywhere else.
Everywhere the Nationals have gone this season, they've proven that to be true. Adam LaRoche hears it at first base on a nightly basis. Batters shake their heads but can't catch their breath in a three-game series against them and a rotation that features power arm after power arm.
Even on nights like Saturday at Camden Yards, when Jackson knew from the time he began throwing his warm-up tosses in the bullpen that it was going to be an uphill battle, they make the opposition look silly. In a 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, Jackson was perfect through four innings and didn't allow a hit until there was one out in the fifth. And his pitching coach was wondering what was wrong.
"For six innings he was just unbelievably good and he said he didn't feel good," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson said, noting Jackson's velocity, which is normally in the 94-96 mph range, was barely hovering around 90.
"Even [pitching coach Steve McCatty] said, 'What's wrong with him,'" Johnson said. "I said, 'There ain't nothing wrong with him. They ain't got a hit yet.'"
When Jackson's night was over, with one out in the seventh inning, all he'd given up was four hits and the only one that did damage was a solo home run by Adam Jones on a hanging slider that clanked off the left field foul pole. His season ERA dropped to 2.91 — which only made him fit in even more with his teammates.
The Nationals are the only team in the major leagues with four starters with ERAs under 3.00. There are 15 teams that don't have a single starter under that mark and no other major league team has more than two with numbers that good.
If Stephen Strasburg (2.46), Gio Gonzalez (2.55), Jordan Zimmermann (2.89) and Jackson can maintain this pace over the course of the season, the Nationals would be the first with four starters under 3.00 since the 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers. That was Orel Hershiser (2.03), Bob Welch (2.31), Fernando Valenzuela (2.45) and Jerry Reuss (2.92). The Baltimore Orioles' rotation in 1972 accomplished the feat as well but the Nationals are also making their mark with an average staff age under 26.
"You look at the guys on paper and you look at the rotation and it's a great group of guys and everybody is young," Jackson said, the elder statesman at 28. "It's not often that 28 is the oldest starter on the rotation. But these guys have going out and been getting done for a couple years. So they're starting to be established pitchers — and they're pitching like it."
Perhaps none, though, as consistently of late as Jackson. For a pitcher who has battled to find that consistency from start to start throughout his career, Jackson is averaging 6 ⅔ innings per start and hasn't allowed more than three runs in a game since May 2. And he's supposed to be the fourth-best starter the Nationals have.
"That's insane," said Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, who picked up his 12th consecutive save with a 1-2-3 ninth and is making Johnson seriously consider leaving him in the role even when Drew Storen returns healthy.
"It make us smile. Looking around this clubhouse ... I just can't imagine what those other teams are thinking when Edwin is our fourth guy. It's a joke. He's probably the No. 1 starter on more than half the teams in the league."
Even on Saturday, without his best stuff, the well-struck balls early either went right to fielders or were tracked down. Bryce Harper ranged well to his left in the second inning to chase Matt Wieters' deep fly to right center. Tyler Moore to his left in the fourth for one off the bat of J.J. Hardy. Chris Davis squared up Jackson's 86-mph slider and ripped it right at first baseman Adam LaRoche.
"Normally those are the days you pitch better, when you don't feel the best and you're not trying to over do it," Jackson said. "You're down in the zone and pitching to contact and making them put the ball in play."
The Nationals themselves only had eight hits. They only scored three runs. They were practically silenced after the fourth inning. Ryan Zimmerman's sore shoulder and his slump wore on. Once again, it didn't matter.
As he walked off the field, Johnson waved to his wife in the crowd and then pumped his fist. On the back of the best pitching staff in baseball, his team had won again.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "It tells you just how good they've been going. I'm impressed. Everybody's impressed."
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