- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

It feels like ancient history now, given all that has transpired in the past week - Ryan Zimmerman’s contract extension, Jordan Zimmermann’s big league debut, the case of the “NATINALS” - but perhaps the most significant turn of events for the Washington Nationals this season came April 16, when Shairon Martis started against the Philadelphia Phillies.

With his team mired in a seven-game losing streak to open the year, Martis recorded the Nationals’ first quality start.

“My goal was to stop the losing streak,” the 22-year-old right-hander said.

He succeeded. The Nationals won 8-2, and perhaps more importantly the entire starting rotation got to relax.

“Everybody the first time around really wanted to get that first win,” left-hander Scott Olsen said. “I think everyone was kind of pressing a little bit. But after Martis went out and did good, it all kind of carried over.”

The Nationals still have trouble closing out games, but that has been no fault of a re-energized rotation. Beginning with Martis’ start against the Phillies and running through John Lannan’s seven shutout innings Wednesday against Atlanta, Washington’s rotation has strung together seven straight strong starts.

Martis, Olsen, Lannan, Zimmermann and Daniel Cabrera have posted six quality starts in that span, with only Cabrera (two runs in five innings Sunday) coming up short of that designation - three runs or fewer in six or more innings. No starter has allowed more than two earned runs during his time on the mound, and the group has produced a 3-0 record and 2.27 ERA in this surge.

“They’re growing on the job, and I think they’re going to have a lot of quality starts among them,” manager Manny Acta said. “We like these guys.”

The vibe surrounding Washington’s rotation wasn’t as positive a week ago, when the same group was 0-5 with a 9.29 ERA and no quality starts. But the Nationals expected ups and downs when they broke camp with a starting five whose average age is 24, the second-youngest in baseball behind Oakland’s rotation.

The first week of the season produced plenty of bumps as starters struggled to make it out of the fifth inning and the pressure to end the streak grew. The group tried to remain positive - “We knew we were better than that,” Olsen said - but it took Martis’ effort to snap everyone out of the doldrums.

“I think he just took pressure off the whole team,” Acta said. “The rest of the guys didn’t feel like, ‘OK, here we go. It’s my turn. Am I going to do it? Am I not going to do it?’ And then it just kept rolling after that.”

Since that night, Washington’s starters have been more aggressive. They’re throwing more first-pitch strikes and keeping their pitch counts down to last deeper into games.

And they are feeding off each other’s performances.

“You know how they say hitting is contagious? Well, pitching can be that way, too,” Olsen said. “Once you get on a roll like that, you don’t want to be the guy who goes out there and [messes] up what everyone else has been doing.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the streak is that Martis and Zimmermann have set the tone. The rookies own all three of the Nationals’ wins, and they’ve done so by pitching like seasoned veterans.

After watching Zimmermann and Martis win the previous two nights against the Braves, Lannan didn’t want to come up short Wednesday. Washington’s de facto ace kept Atlanta scoreless for seven innings, but a lack of run support cost him his first win of the year.

But he insisted he wasn’t trying to outdo his fellow hurlers.

“No, you’re not trying to top your teammates,” he said. “You’re just trying to go out there and not be the guy that breaks the streak. We’re pushing each other, just trying to do our jobs. Whether we throw seven innings or four, we’ve still got each other’s backs.”

Olsen, standing a few lockers away at the time, had a message for his fellow lefty.

“I’m going to try to outdo you,” said Olsen, who is slated to start Friday against the New York Mets.

“Good; I hope you do,” Lannan replied.

If Olsen does, he can be sure Cabrera - Saturday’s scheduled pitcher - will pay close attention. The way Washington’s starters are going now, no one wants to do anything to derail this hot streak.

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