Associated Press photo
Ross Detwiler allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings in last night's win.
Make no mistake, though: This September will be worth watching, for any number of reasons.
There is, of course, the pursuit of a winning record for the first time since the franchise arrived in town. With last night's 4-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, the Nats now sit at 62-64. Which means they'll need to go 20-16 down the stretch to surpass the .500 mark. This could very well come down to the season's final series in Florida.
The other compelling storyline that is beginning to emerge, though, is the battle for spots in the Nationals' 2012 rotation. There is plenty left to decide, and there is plenty of reason to believe September performances are going to matter in this race.
At this point, three starters are assured of jobs next year: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan. Strasburg (assuming all goes well over his next two rehab starts) will be back pitching in D.C. in about nine or 10 days and should make five September starts to get himself on track for 2012.
Zimmermann makes what almost certainly will be his penultimate start of the season tonight against Arizona. He's at 150 2/3 innings, and he's likely to be shut down at around the 162-inning mark.
Lannan is free to finish out the season and attempt to crack double digits in wins for the first time in his career while maintaining a career-best ERA in the mid-3.00s.
That leaves two open slots for next season, with a host of candidates getting a chance to make their case over the next month: Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler, Livan Hernandez, Tom Milone, Brad Peacock.
Trouble is, there's no way for Davey Johnson to offer all five of those guys opportunities to start every fifth day down the stretch, not with Strasburg and Lannan guaranteed to hold down two spots in September.
Wang is guaranteed to hold a spot himself as team officials try to determine if he's worth re-signing over the winter. The Taiwanese right-hander has shown steady progress through each of his five starts, especially on Sunday when he struck out four Phillies batters and displayed wicked movement on both his sinker and curveball to induce more swings and misses than in any of his previous outings.
Detwiler has thrust himself into the mix over the last week, with impressive starts against both the Reds and Diamondbacks. Total up the five starts he's made in the big leagues this season, and the left-hander is 2-3 with a 2.89 ERA. He nearly completed seven innings last night, touched 96 mph with his fastball and appears to be gaining confidence with each appearance. The jury is still out on the 2007 first-round pick, but the only to find out for sure is to keep throwing him out there the rest of the season.
So that leaves only one remaining rotation slot among the wily veteran (Hernandez) and the two kids expected to be called up from Class AAA Syracuse (Milone and Peacock).
Hernandez has given his heart and soul to this organization, and he deserves to continue to pitch every fifth day. But the time has probably come for the Nationals to slide him out of the way, perhaps sticking him in the bullpen for the season's final month, in order to get a look at Milone and Peacock.
At this point, everyone knows what Livo brings to the table. He remains a valuable pitcher to have on staff, and he may yet be the Nationals' best answer for a No. 4 or 5 starter next season. But the only way to know that for sure is to find out if the organization's up-and-coming pitchers are ready to succeed at this level.
Whatever the Nationals decide to do with their rotation, this figures to be the dominant storyline in September, one that should be the most-compelling final month we've seen in D.C. in quite a while.