Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Craig Stammen churned out eight strong innings to lead the Nats to victory.
But perhaps Stammen actually feels too good. Able to throw free and easy for the first time as a big leaguer, he's been tempted at times to try to cut loose and overpower opposing hitters.
Just one problem: Stammen is not a power pitcher. Never has been. Never will be. He actually loses effectiveness when trying to throw too hard, something he did five nights ago in Philadelphia during a wretched, 1 1/3-inning start against the Phillies.
So when he returned to the mound tonight against the Rockies, the 26-year-old made a conscious effort to ease off the gas pedal a bit. Don't try to throw 94 mph when 90 is good enough.
"When you're young, you learn real quick that 100 percent isn't always the best," he said. "I kind of got into a mode where my arm was feeling so good, I was letting 'er fly. And that felt good. But I wasn't getting any results."
Stammen got the results he and the Nationals wanted tonight. With eight superb innings of two-run ball, he rediscovered his top form and led Washington to a thoroughly satisfying 5-2 victory over Colorado.
His goal on the mound tonight? Be more like Livan Hernandez.
"Watching Livo do it at like 85 percent really puts you back a little bit," he said. "You try to emulate that as best you can."
Stammen has taken quite a liking to Hernandez since the latter rejoined the club last fall. The two played golf during spring training, and in the course of that round, the young right-hander understood why the sage veteran has been so successful in the majors despite his lack of velocity.
Hernandez is as good a golfer as there is in baseball, and he has the same approach on the tee as he does on the mound.
"How I play golf is how I pitch," Livo told Stammen. "Just nice and easy, let it fly down the middle. If I overswing, I don't hit the ball straight. Same as pitching."
The two right-handers spoke this week about that philosophy, and Stammen made a point to heed Hernandez's advice, figuring there are enough similarities between the two to make it work.
"I don't throw as hard as him, but it's similar styles," said Hernandez, who tossed a four-hit shutout Saturday. "So I give him some advice."
Whatever was said, it worked. Stammen retired the first six Rockies he faced tonight and never looked back. By the time he departed following the eighth, he had allowed only two runs on five hits, walking one and striking out five.
In the process, Stammen extended a trend that has come to define the 2010 Nationals. When their starting pitcher goes at least five innings, they're now 7-0. When the starter fails to go five, they're 0-6.
"It's just a whole different ballgame -- to manage, to watch -- when your starter's out there relatively deep in the ballgame," Jim Riggleman said.
This Nats club is far from perfect. It's got flaws. But it's also got enough offense, a good enough bullpen and improved enough defense to compete with anyone ... as long as it gets decent work from its rotation.
This club, which now owns a 7-6 record, also has something its predecessors did not: A good vibe inside the clubhouse.
"The thing here now that I see different is chemistry," said Willie Harris, whose three-run homer in second inning carried the lineup tonight. "It's just a different feeling. Even [yesterday] when we were down 10 runs, we felt like we could get back in the game, and we did. If you believe in your teammates and yourself, you never know what can happen."
In a strange way, yesterday's 11-7 loss to the Brewers actually proved valuable for the Nationals. Jason Marquis may have put his teammates in a 10-0 hole after one inning, but the manner in which the rest of the club battled back to make it a competitive game turned what should have been a disastrous afternoon at the park into a positive development that carried over into the next series.
"I think it meant a lot to us," Harris said. "We came out here tonight with some momentum. Yesterday, we ended the game with some momentum."
That momentum translated into a complete victory tonight, a stellar pitching performance from a guy who fed off his teammate's performance two days earlier and the continuation of a solid opening stanza to the season for a club that seems determined to keep this run going.