- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2015


When Bryce Harper was popping champagne and sizing up his World Series ring with the Washington Nationals, maybe he wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the National League.

They were taking orders for rings in Los Angeles, St. Louis and Pittsburgh as well — and that was before New York came up with perhaps the best young group of starting pitchers in all of baseball.

There was talk of a historically great Nationals pitching rotation when, to everyone’s surprise, the team added to an already impressive rotation of Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark by signing Max Scherzer to a $210 million contract.

It is a great pitching staff, but guess what? They’ve got great pitching in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and St. Louis — and now New York.

As Todd Dybas wrote in Tuesday’s edition of The Washington Times, it is another “Year of the Pitcher.”

The Cardinals have the top-ranked staff in baseball this season, with a 2.66 ERA, followed by the Pirates with a 2.93 ERA among their starters and the Mets at 3.22. The Dodgers are fifth with a 3.28 ERA. The Nationals are 10th with a 3.58 ERA.

Baseball has turned into an arms race, and Washington, as we saw this past weekend at Nationals Park, is hardly the only superpower.

Four of the top 10 ranked pitchers in baseball this year pitch for Los Angeles, Pittsburgh or New York. In addition to Matt Harvey, who the Nationals handled in a 7-2 win on Monday, and Jacob deGrom, who took the mound on Tuesday, Washington will have to match up against a Pirates staff that includes A.J. Burnett (7-3, 2.11 ERA) and Gerrit Cole (13-3, 2.30 ERA).

What we saw in the marquee matchup on Sunday between Scherzer and Zach Greinke — the top two pitchers in baseball this year — was playoff baseball. One guy pitches well, the other guy pitches better, to steal a line from Nationals manager Matt Williams after Game 1 of last year’s National League Division Series against San Francisco.

Scherzer pitched well, allowing just one run on seven hits through six innings. But he labored in those six innings, and that one run scored on a wild pitch in the fourth inning that allowed Andre Ethier to cross home plate and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead.

That was it. That was the game right there before it fell apart in the hands of the Washington bullpen in the top of the ninth inning. That’s what it can come down to in playoff baseball when everyone you face has great pitching.
Greinke — the other guy — pitched better, allowing no runs on just three hits over eight innings.

The day before, Clayton Kershaw was unhittable, striking out 14 batters and giving up just three hits over eight shutout innings, going up against one member of the Nationals‘ great rotation, After going 16-6 in 25 starts last season, Fister has struggled this year with injuries and consistency, allowing four runs on nine hits and two walks in a 4-2 loss to Los Angeles on Saturday.

And while the Nationals were operating with half of their starting lineup on the disabled list, we’ve seen from last year’s NLDS loss to the Giants, the healthy lineup is not particularly good at manufacturing runs in a pitcher’s duel.

Kershaw and Greinke may be the best one-two duo in the league — maybe better than Scherzer and Zimmermann. In a best-of-five division series, all you may need to do is to win the best pitching matchups between the top two pitchers. That puts you down 2-0, and looking up at a deep hole from which to dig out.

This time around in the postseason, the Nationals need to have the guys who pitch better than the guys who pitch well.

While signing Scherzer may have seemed like a luxury, it has turned out to be a necessary move just to keep up in the arms race.

The Dodgers are looking to escalate the arms race, as speculation is that Phillies lefthander Cole Hamels could wind up in Los Angeles before the trading deadline. Next season, they are expected to target Detroit’s free-agent ace, David Price.

Speaking of next season, Greinke has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent. The Dodgers, of course, will likely spend whatever they have to in order to keep him.

But the Nationals have more than $40 million in payroll off the books next year when Zimmermann, Fister, Ian Desmond and Denard Span become free agents.

In an arms race, you can’t afford to blink.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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