WASHINGTON -- The Nationals had a Spring Training worth talking about. They had their first winning exhibition season since 2004, when they were known as the Expos. It helped that Washington received above-average pitching and timely hitting.
But that was Spring Training.
The regular season starts on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. ET against the Braves at Nationals Park. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman is hoping that the above-average pitching carries over into the regular season.
The pitching staff, according to Riggleman, will determine if the Nationals will have their first winning season in Washington.
"I feel great about the potential of our pitching. I think it has really come together [during Spring Training]. It speaks to how good we can be," Riggleman said. "But with every team, if you are going to win, you have to pitch well. We lost seven in a row [during Spring Training], but then we won five in a row, so we see the potential with our pitching here."
Last season, the Nationals ranked 11th in the National League in pitching with a 4.13 ERA. It was a tale of two stories regarding the staff, though, because the rotation was decimated by injuries, while the bullpen became the strength of the team. The bullpen ranked fourth in the NL in ERA.
The bullpen is still strong, led by Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. The club further strengthened the relief corps by adding Todd Coffey during the offseason. The only question about the bullpen is who will be the team's closer? Riggleman decided that Storen and Burnett will split the duties.
Originally, Riggleman said he had planned to use a closer-by-committee system, which also included Clippard, Coffey and Doug Slaten.
"Right now, if there were a couple of lefties up, and then a righty, I would probably start the inning with Burnett," Riggleman said. "If there were a couple of righties and a lefty, I would go to Storen. I would just let him run with it. It really depends on what has happened [before the final inning].
"If you are winning in the seventh and eighth, and you felt like your best chance to get out of this [jam] is using one of those guys, I think we need to be able to use them. Sometimes, the save comes in the seventh or eighth inning."
The rotation will be without right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and could return by the end of the season. Still, the rest of the rotation is expected to be stronger than last year's crew.
The Nationals' rotation this season will include Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny. It's hard to predict how well they will do on the mound, but Riggleman knows that expectations are higher than last year.
"Pitching-wise, I feel like Marquis and Lannan are in better shape to help us in '11 than they were in '10," Riggleman said. "They were banged up early last year without us really knowing it. I think those issues are behind them. ... I think there is a chance for our rotation to be better. I think our pitchers will be helped by our defense. So I'm encouraged by our ballclub probably a little more than I was last year."
With the exception of Zimmermann, the rotation doesn't have pitchers who strike out a lot of hitters. This is where the defense comes in. Last season it was one of the worst in baseball. That's why they added Werth, first baseman Adam LaRoche and center fielder Rick Ankiel to improve in that department. The defense still looked shaky at times during Spring Training, but the team would say most of those errors were made by players who are not on the Opening Day roster.
"The key for us is to back up our pitchers and not make them get more than 27 outs," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We are going to score some runs, but if we have consistent defense and pitching, that's the key [to success]."