WASHINGTON — Winning streaks in baseball require a perfect combination of clutch hitting, favorable scheduling and a nice serving of cluster luck. But there is one fundamental that seems to be an inescapable part of any notable streak: Terrific starting pitching.
The Washington Nationals have put together an odds-defying, franchise record-tying 10-game heater heading into Friday night’s series opener against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park. Over the course of that streak, they have scored 4.6 runs per game, not notably higher than the 4.21 they’ve averaged all season. But the pitching staff has allowed just 2.3 runs per contest.
More specifically, the starting rotation has been otherworldly. While the relief corps’ 3.00 ERA (9 ER/27.0 IP) has been solid, they have also blown three saves. The rotation, though, has allowed just 10 total earned runs in 67 innings, good for a 1.34 ERA. In the last five games, every starter has gone at least seven innings only once allowing more than a single run.
Since 1953, only one team has ever won more than 15 straight games in a single year, when the Oakland Athletics reeled off 20 in a row back in 2002. It was a feat so rare, it became the central dramatic climax of the film “Moneyball.” The Milwaukee Brewers won 16 straight between the 1986-87 seasons as well, and several teams have reached 15 games recently, including the 2000 Atlanta Braves, 2001 Seattle mariners and Washington’s opponent tonight — the Giants — from the end of 2002 into the beginning of 2003.
That Braves squad had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine leading the way, with the solid Andy Ashby, Kevin Millwood and John Burkett in tow. The Giants had Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. And now, the Nationals have the same type of five-deep rotation that gives them a reasonable chance to win every day they take the field, no matter the opponent.
Their three qualified starters Tanner Roark (9th), Jordan Zimmermann (11th) and Stephen Strasburg (19th) all rank in the top 20 in the league. Gio Gonzalez has missed time on the disabled list, but has been better as of late, spinning seven shutout frames on Thursday. And then there is Doug Fister.
The Nats have been looking for a fourth starter to complement their big three since acquiring Gonzalez in 2012, and appear to have finally found him. The lanky righty’s 2.20 ERA would be tied for second most in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s just short, but should soon), trailing only Clayton Kershaw.
They still have a long way to go to catch the record-setting A’s, but if they can survive the Giants this weekend, the Nationals head to Philadelphia for three games beginning Monday. If we’re still talking about this streak then, they’ll have the chance to dive into some truly hallowed ground.