Max Scherzer chatting with reporters after the Nationals won the NCLS on Oct. 15, 2019 Credit: Kelyn Soong

When the 2021 Washington Nationals season begins, general manager Mike Rizzo will once again rely on his tried-and-true starting pitching. Except now, instead of the “Big Three,” the Nationals will have a “Big Four” rotation of pitchers with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and, new to the club this season, veteran southpaw Jon Lester.

Add 27-year-old Joe Ross, who returns after opting out last season, to this group and baseball fans in D.C. can get excited about the potential these hurlers can showcase all summer at Nats Park. 

Lester takes the place of another veteran, right-hander Aníbal Sánchez, who spent the past two seasons with the Nats, playing an important role in securing the franchise’s first World Series title in 2019. The 37-year-old Lester certainly knows about winning in the World Series. He has done it three times—twice with the Boston Red Sox and once with the Chicago Cubs.

With Lester, the quartet boasts 8,073 strikeouts over 7,613 innings, four separate World Series titles, 17 All-Star appearances, three Cy Young Awards, one NLCS MVP, one World Series MVP, and a whopping 47 years of combined major league service. 

But the question remains whether the Nationals’ rotation can stay healthy and have all four starters deliver for an entire season.

Prior to tonight’s opener, Rizzo announced Wednesday afternoon that an unidentified Nats player had tested positive for COVID-19. The team had gone through spring training without any positive tests, but Rizzo said four players and one staffer were deemed close contacts and are in quarantine. Barring any other positive results from Wednesday morning’s rapid tests, the team will replace the players in quarantine for the Mets series with players from their alternate site in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Scherzer traveled back from Florida on a flight separate from the team charter, so he remains tonight’s starting pitcher.

“We had done so well in spring training,” Scherzer said on Wednesday’s Zoom call with reporters. “Everybody across the game. We had seen so few positive cases across spring training as a whole. But it just shows you how quickly that can turn … We [have] to face it and we [have] to overcome it.”

If the Nats can make it through the season without any more health concerns, they will be in contention in the heavily contested National League East. If they break down, it becomes a different story. These pitchers have logged a ton of innings over all those years of service, so the possibility of a breakdown has to be considered.

“Assuming they stay healthy—and pitcher health is a concern at all levels of baseball after losing most of 2020 to the pandemic—I could see the pitchers at the front of the Nationals’ rotation being the team’s biggest strength,” says MLB Pipeline senior writer Jim Callis. “Scherzer and Strasburg can be as dominant as anyone, and there aren’t many No. 3 starters better than Corbin. The biggest question is how much Lester has left on the downside of his career.”

The 36-year-old Scherzer started camp with a twisted ankle. The 32-year-old Strasburg missed all but two starts last season due to a carpal tunnel wrist problem that required offseason surgery. He then dealt with a calf issue this past month. Lester missed some of camp with parathyroid surgery. All appear to be healthy and good to go for manager Davey Martinez

The skipper was especially happy with the way Strasburg ended his final spring tuneup on March 29, when he threw 98 pitches in 5 2/3 innings and struck out the final three batters faced.

“He teeter-tottered all game and then those last three batters he really honed in and did really well,” Martinez said during a recent postgame Zoom video call with reporters. “So that was a good way to end the spring and we feel like he is ready to go. For me it was trying to get him up to 100 pitches and let him go out there. The biggest thing for me is every time he is ahead of the hitters, he puts hitters away.”

Strasburg explained that the calf issue did slow him down at the beginning of spring, but now he feels like he’s getting back up to speed.

“I wanted to go into camp ready and I felt like I was,” he said. “And then it was kind of like you get a little hiccup. It’s just about not trying to develop some bad habits and favoring. I felt like I am trending in the right direction. It’s been a little bit slower than I anticipated as far as execution, but [I] just got to continue to be patient with myself and know that it is a long season.”

Tonight, Scherzer goes up against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. The Nats top ace has been fine-tuning his slider his last few spring starts.

“Felt good,” Scherzer said of his final spring training game. “Focus for me today was coming in and really making sure I got my slider a tick harder with more depth and I was able to execute that today. That’s what I was really gunning to make sure that I was executing today and was able to check that box.”

The starting pitchers wrap up with a pair of left-handers in Corbin and Lester. Corbin likes the idea of having two southpaws in the starting rotation and recommends splitting the pair up in the rotation. 

“It’s good that he’s healthy,” Corbin, 31, said of his new teammate Lester. “I’m looking forward to being able to watch him more and more. I think at this point just feeling good is all you can ask for, and I think he is there.

“I’m looking forward to watching him pitch, a veteran guy, having another lefty in the rotation is always fun to see.”

Lester also approves of splitting the lefties up after Scherzer and Strasburg go. He says the goal he shoots for every season is to be ready every five days. The 15-year veteran has started 31 or more games every season from 2008 through 2019.

“Big thing for me is just something I’ve always kind of believed in coming up through minor leagues and then getting to big leagues and being around guys that just make every start that are there,” Lester said. “That’s always something I’ve tried to pride myself [in]. That’s what I’m going to try to do this year for this team is make sure that I am there, I’m present. 

“Let the big guys be big guys and let them do their thing, and if I can just keep taking my turn I feel like I add a different [look]. Even though Patrick and I are a little similar we’re different at the same time.”

And if all four can stay healthy, the Nats will again be in a position of strength in the NL East. Just like Rizzo planned.