Nationals finally looking respectable (cont.)
Rodriguez's impact on the young pitching staff is quantifiable. Through the season's first 10 games the Nationals' starters were averaging 4 2/3 innings per outing with a 7.58 ERA. Since April 17 -- with the rotation having made nearly two full turns, giving Rodriguez ample time to grow comfortable with each pitcher -- Washington's rotation has gone nearly six innings per start with a 3.38 ERA in games he's caught. In one recent five-game lap through the rotation the Nationals starters had a 1.44 ERA, a .191 batting average against and a 27-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And he's working this magic with the majors' softest tossers, a starter group that averages just 87.8 miles per hour with their fastballs. It helps, too, that Rodriguez is batting .336 in 110 at bats.
"These guys look at Ivan Rodriguez as an iconic type of player," Rizzo said. "Once he's learned the pitchers, learned what they can do and learned their nuances, they trust that the fingers he's putting down are the right fingers because of his professionalism and his preparation for each start for each guy."
Nationals lefty John Lannan was six years old when Rodriguez made his major-league debut in 1991 and credits his veteran catcher with improving his approach.
"Just different kinds of pitches I had never thought of throwing before in situations," Lannan said. "That just comes with his experience and what he's seen before."
The insertion of veterans in key spots has helped all over the diamond. Desmond says the hard work Kennedy and Rodriguez put in is "contagious," and on road trips the young shortstop has started sharing a cab with Kennedy to the ballpark, rather than wait for the team bus, so the two can take extra groundballs.
"I pretty much follow his shadow the whole way," Desmond said, before adding shrewdly, "He's got more [service] time, so he pays for the cab."
Desmond beating out Guzman was one of only two position battles this spring, along with right field, which was a revolving door for the first few weeks, though Roger Bernardina has at least temporarily claimed most of the playing time there. The lack of prevailing uncertainty has made a difference in the clubhouse.
"The last couple of years we've had guys in and out the whole time," Zimmerman said. "This year was the first time we came to spring training knowing what our team was going to be. We didn't have an open competition for five out of the nine spots. It helps to know who's going to be there. It has a more professional feel.
"In the past we've had some guys that, if they weren't with this organization, they might not be in the big leagues yet. That's not their fault, it's just a really hard place to learn."
Rizzo's influx of veteran talent included seven World Series winners, six of whom who were new to the franchise since Bowden left. One of those players with championship rings, however, is reliever Brian Bruney, who was just designated for assignment to make room for Storen, who has been called upon to shore up Washington's bullpen. In 16 2/3 innings split between Double A and Triple A, Storen had a 1.08 ERA and 15 strikeouts.
While the Nationals' farm system, despite a series of high draft picks, is a work in progress for depth -- Baseball America rated it No. 26 out of 30 this offseason -- Storen and Strasburg are a pair of young talents who ought to make meaningful 2010 contributions that could keep the Nationals at least on the edge of contention into mid-summer.
And that's an achievement that has been a long, long time coming.
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