The Nationals’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Steve Rogers (1973-85)
The right-handed sinkerballer—some say spitballer—played his entire career for Montreal, paying his dues in the Expos’ early fledgling days and starring on the mound a decade later when they become perennial contenders with a solid backbone of offensive talent; he is far and away tops on the all-time Expos-Nationals list in wins, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.
Rogers had a fabulous 1973 debut, posting a 10-5 record with a wowing 1.54 earned run averge in 17 starts, but a late start likely cost him the National League Rookie of the Year award (which went to full-time outfielder Gary Matthews). Inexperience and early overuse of his arm brought him back to reality over the next three years, twice leading the NL in losses (including a team-record 22 in 1974). He turned it around in 1977, the first of seven straight years in which he fielded winning records—topped in 1982 with a 19-8 mark and major league-leading 2.40 ERA. The team workhorse, Rogers surpassed 250 innings six times, twice led the NL in shutouts, was named to five All-Star teams and, although he never won a Cy Young Award, finished in the top five of the vote three times.
A self-described perfectionist, Rogers had one of the game’s more unique deliveries. “He throws across his body and off a stiff leg,” teammate Woody Fryman once assessed. “You don’t teach that anywhere.” Rogers also had run-ins with several of his managers, including veteran pilot Dick Williams—who once labeled him as a “fraud” for failing to come through in the big games. To that point, Williams might have offered as evidence the crushing home run given up by Rogers to Los Angeles’ Rick Monday in the decisive Game Five of the 1981 NLCS—but it doesn’t explain Rogers’ otherwise stout pitching in that postseason that included a six-hit shutout against Philadelphia to advance the Expos from the first-round of that year’s strike-increased playoffs, the franchise’s only postseason appearance while in Montreal.
Dennis Martinez (1986-93)
The skinny Nicaragua native came to Montreal a mess, struggling to overcome alcoholism and a string of terrible performances in Baltimore after a promising early career. Once with the Expos, he quickly turned sober—and sobered many a hitter as he evolved into a far better, more tenacious hurler, becoming an inspiration stateside and a hero back in his homeland where he was adorned with the sobriquet of El Presidente.
Martinez’s first six full years in Montreal resulted in annual ERAs lower than anything he produced in nine full seasons with the Orioles. His high-water mark came in 1991 when he led the majors with a 2.39 ERA and five shutouts—and pitched only the fourth perfect game in modern NL annals when he retired all 27 Los Angeles batters he faced at Dodger Stadium on July 28.
A three-time All-Star with the Expos, Martinez won 100 games in Montreal with a stellar 3.06 ERA—a full run better than his career ERA outside of his playing days in Canada. His 245 lifetime wins remain the most by a Latino.
Pedro Martinez (1994-97)
The flamboyant, fiery right-hander came up as the kid brother of Ramon Martinez (who won 20 games for the Dodgers in 1990, two years before Pedro’s debut), but after being shipped to the Expos developed into a major star on a talented team eventually torn apart by severe restraints on the bottom line.
Martinez initially made news in Montreal for his confrontational pitching style, leading the NL in 1994 by hitting 11 batters and igniting three bench-clearing brawls. He was good through his first three years with a combined 38-25 record—even throwing nine perfect innings in a 1995 game before allowing a hit in the tenth of a 0-0 tie—but entered the untouchable phase of his career in 1997 thanks to the development of a devastating change-up to complement his mid-90s fastball. The results were exceptional, as Martinez led the majors with a 1.90 ERA, completed a career-high 13 games, struck out 305 batters and allowed a .184 batting average; that he finished with a record of only 17-8 was an insult to his other numbers, but Cy Young Award voters were in the know enough to give him his first of three such honors in his career.
The Expos, by now seriously hampered by payroll, made little secret of Martinez’s long-term plans in Montreal as being non-existent. Following his magical 1997 breakout campaign, Martinez was traded for Carl Pavano and a player to be named later (Tony Armas Jr.) to the Boston Red Sox, where he would record a 105-28 mark and win four more ERA titles with ridiculous ease over the next six seasons.
Jordan Zimmermann (2009-2015)
The tough right-hander from Wisconsin had a hard time being recognized outside of the Beltway—thanks to the concurrent rise of marquee prospects Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, not to mention those who confused him with star teammate Ryan Zimmerman—but among Nationals fans he came to be known as sure, steady and as successful as any pitcher in recent franchise history.
After a slow start to his major league career due to Tommy John surgery in 2009, Zimmermann arguably blossomed into as the ace within a superior rotation, sporting a 58-32 record from 2012-15—earning All-Star status in two of those four seasons. Much of his success was attributed to excellent control; for every nine innings he’s pitched, he’s walked fewer than two batters, easily one of the best rates among active major league pitchers.
For Zimmermann—tagged “Double-N” to differentiate himself from Ryan Zimmerman’s “Single-N”—his no-nonsense, working-class attitude earned him respect and a bit of humor from one online fan who once typed that he’s smiled twice, once by accident. The one time it was intentional likely came on the last day of the 2014 regular season, when he no-hit the Miami Marlins in front of a home sellout crowd. There were no smiles to be found in his next start, in the NLDS against San Francisco—when he was pulled one out away from a shutout, only to watch from the bench as his slim 1-0 lead disintegrated. (The Nationals lost in 18 innings, 2-1, and the Giants went on to win the series.)
Bryn Smith (1981-89)
After toiling in the minors for the better part of seven years, the right-handed pitcher who counted a palmball (a variation of a change-up) as his go-to became a solid rotation asset for much of the 1980s in Montreal.
After two years in the bullpen, Smith was given a crack as a starter late in 1983 and made a fine first impression, going 5-7 in 12 starts but with a 2.38 ERA and five complete games, the latter mark good enough to represent an eventual career high total. Two years later, Smith had his finest campaign, winning 18 of 23 decisions with a sharp 2.91 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning) that placed fifth in the NL. Outside of that, Smith never won more than 12 games in any other year for the Expos, but lost even fewer to frequently bring his records in over the .500 mark.
After 1989, Smith pitched three years for St. Louis and then moved onto Colorado, where he started the very first home game in Rockies history before 80,227 fans at Mile High Stadium—throwing seven shutout innings to pick up the franchise’s first win. It was the singular shining moment in a season (his last) in which he otherwise would be 1-4 with an 11.12 ERA.
Washington Nationals Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Nationals, decade by decade.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Nationals' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Nationals' history.
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