- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

DUNEDIN, Fla. | John Lannan’s pitching line Wednesday afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays - seven runs, 10 hits allowed in 4 2/3 innings - wasn’t exactly what the Washington Nationals had in mind for their ace left-hander in his final tuneup before Opening Day.

Then again, the Nationals know there are going to be more days like this before 2009 comes to a close. They made the decision to go with one of the youngest pitching staffs in baseball, a decision that excites most everyone in the organization but also guarantees some hiccups.

“There’s going to be peaks and valleys regardless of who you have in a 162-game season,” manager Manny Acta said. “We’re prepared for it. But… I’m willing to take my lumps when the guys are 22 years old, 24 years old, instead of a six-year free agent or a 32- or 33-year-old.”

Washington’s season-opening starting five of Lannan, Scott Olsen, Daniel Cabrera, Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann is high on potential but low on experience. Cabrera is the oldest of the group at 27; Martis and Zimmermann are 22.

The quintet’s average age of 24 makes it the second-youngest in the majors behind only the Oakland Athletics’. After losing ace Justin Duchscherer to an elbow injury, the A’s will field a rotation with an average age of 23.

For the Nationals, the decision to go young was simple. The organization has long espoused its plan to rebuild from within, and for the first time this spring the franchise’s top pitching prospects were ready for big league action. Rather than plug in the holes with such veterans as Odalis Perez and Tim Redding - as was the case a year ago - Washington felt it had viable candidates to take over those jobs.

“I would like to have a Roy Halladay to lead the staff, to set that example and to take pressure off the other guys,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “But we don’t have that. And I’d rather go with the youngsters than trying to patchwork guys that have scuffled throughout their careers.”

It certainly helped that the three youngest starters in the group dominated throughout spring training. Martis has posted a 2.31 ERA in six outings, allowing only 14 hits in 23 2/3 innings. Zimmermann didn’t surrender a run until his fifth appearance and has struck out 20 batters and walked just two. Lannan entered Wednesday’s start with a 1.50 ERA.

Each, though, had at least one ragged outing against big league hitters, a reminder of what’s to come this season. For the Nationals coaching staff, those rough starts perhaps reveal more about a young pitcher than the best ones.

It’s easy to perform when things have been going well. It’s much tougher to perform when they haven’t.

“That’s the part that you really don’t know for sure until it happens,” St. Claire said. “And it will happen. This game makes sure it will happen to you. But when they cross that hurdle and make that adjustment, it’s a big step for them.”

Lannan has already shown an ability to bounce back. In September, he was roughed up by the New York Mets and departed after only three innings. Six days later, facing that same Mets lineup, the rookie left-hander went seven innings and allowed one hit.

Those kind of performances helped Lannan earn the Opening Day nod this spring. A 24-year-old with a career 11-17 record isn’t a prototypical staff ace, but Lannan is as close as Washington has to one. He doesn’t necessarily view himself as the leader of the rotation, but he believes the group will feed off one another other.

“We know we are young,” he said. “But [Olsen] and Cabrera, they’ve been around a little bit. They know how to win. We’re going to go out there and have everybody’s backs and push each other. We’re all young. We’re all in the same boat. So it’s going to be exciting.”

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