Nationals' rotation getting in the swing of things

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Starting pitchers form MLB's top hitting group

Gio Gonzalez swung, and the ball took off toward the infamous Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

For one of the most gregarious Nationals players, Gonzalez hardly cracked a smile after his fly ball Wednesday night carried over the left-field wall for his first career home run. But when he returned to the dugout, Washington's starting pitcher was greeted with mock cheers by his teammates and even had a tub of chewing gum dropped on his head.

It has been a season-long trend for Washington's rotation. It has been the league's best group on the mound but has contributed more than its fair share at the plate, too. Four of the sport's top 31 pitchers -- based on at least 25 plate appearances -- are Nats.

Stephen Strasburg leads that group. Keep in mind his numbers are based on just 41 plate appearances and 35 official at-bats. But he is batting .343 with a .410 on-base percentage, a .543 slugging percentage and a .953 OPS. He leads all pitchers in all of those categories. So when Strasburg is shut down for the year as a precautionary measure, will manager Davey Johnson use him as a pinch hitter down the stretch?

"The way he runs the bases, he's not really a runner," Johnson said when that topic was broached earlier this month. "So I probably won't hit [Strasburg]. I don't want nothing to happen to him hitting when he ain't pitching. But I've thought about it."

Gonzalez became the third Washington pitcher to homer this season. He joined Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, who homered May 28 at Miami. Zimmermann has been a far cry from Strasburg at the plate statistically with a .581 OPS. But he does have eight hits, including that homer and two doubles. Edwin Jackson, too, has eight hits and is batting .211. He even has been used as a pinch runner, including in Monday's extra-winning win at Houston.

Ross Detwiler (2-for-28, .071 average) isn't at that level. Gonzalez, truthfully, hasn't been much better than that with five hits in 43 at-bats (.116 average) plus 16 strikeouts to just one walk. During spring training Gonzalez laughed when asked by reporters how he would fare with a bat in his hands this season. After all, he had needed to hit just nine times in his career before this season while playing in the American League with the Oakland A's. Gonzalez pled for patience, but it appears he had a little better swing than he let on at the time. And he's not the only one -- even if pinch hitting is unlikely in the cards for them.

"I don't think we're that far along," Strasburg said after his latest start, in which he singled home two runs in the second inning of a 4-1 victory over the Marlins. "I think they're starting to pitch me like a hitter, which is kind of cool because they respect me a little more at the plate. But we've got a lot of guys capable of getting the job done -- in a pinch-hit role and everything."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner