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 average 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.
Max Scherzer (2015-present)
His right eye is blue and his left eye brown, but the tough, competitive Scherzer has been nothing but gold since signing a massive contract to play for the Nationals starting in 2015.
Scherzer debuted with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008 and was a key figure in a three-team trade that sent him to Detroit two years later. With the Tigers, he emerged as a productive ace, furnishing a remarkable 82-35 record with a fastball clocked well into the 90s—but many weren’t convinced that he could maintain that velocity and give the Nationals similar success as he aged into his 30s after signing a whopping seven-year, $210 million deal. So far, he’s proved the critics quite wrong.
A 14-12 record in Scherzer’s first year at Washington may have looked blasé, but poor run support—nearly two runs fewer per start than he got in Detroit—had much to do with it. Taking matters into his own hands, Scherzer set a franchise mark by throwing 48 straight scoreless innings, and became the fifth pitcher in history to throw two no-hitters in one season. Odd thing was, he didn’t walk anyone in either of his two no-nos; he missed a perfect game with the first gem, hitting the 27th batter (Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata) with a pitch. The only batter to reach in the second no-hitter did so via a sixth-inning error.
In 2016, Scherzer copped his second Cy Young Award—making him the sixth pitcher to win one in both leagues—with a 20-7 mark and career-high 284 strikeouts. Twenty of those Ks came on May 11 while facing his former Detroit mates to tie the all-time record. Another stellar effort in 2017—earning him his second straight Cy, and third overall—and a career-high 300 strikeouts in 2018, lifted his four-year mark at Washington to 68-32 with a 2.71 ERA. Scherzer has recorded a 0.93 WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning) through his first five years with the Nationals, and struck out 250 or more batters each season from 2014-18—something accomplished by only one other pitcher (Randy Johnson).
A workhorse by modern-day standards—meaning he’s annually good for at least 200 innings—Scherzer in 2014 ended a dubious, record-breaking string of 178 starts to begin a career without going the distance. With the complete game becoming more and more of an endangered species, expect that mark to be broken soon.
Stephen Strasburg (2010-present)
The Nationals’ rebound from a destitute existence in the 2000s changed when they made the tall right-hander from San Diego State the first choice in the 2009 Amateur Draft. And while he didn’t throw 103 MPH in his major league debut a year later—as he had been clocked at in college—he was more than impressive enough to strike out 14 Pirates while allowing just two runs and no walks through seven innings.
What looked like a fully paved fast lane to legend didn’t initially pan out; Strasburg shortly thereafter blew out his elbow and didn’t return to full strength until 2012. And although the term “workhorse” hasn’t fit into his vocabulary—he’s pitched over 200 innings only twice for Washington—he’s been steadily tough on opponents when available, producing a 112-59 record and sharp 3.19 ERA over 10 seasons at D.C.
What’s made Strasburg truly special for the Nationals was his postseason game. While Washington repeatedly flubbed up in the playoffs, it was never Strasburg’s fault; when they finally got it all together and won the World Series for the first time in 2019, Strasburg was there to lead the way. In nine October appearances (eight starts) for Washington, he’s furnished a 6-2 record and fabulous 1.46 ERA, and was named the MVP of the 2019 Fall Classic.
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 were the most registered by a Latino until Bartolo Colon passed him up in 2018.
Gio Gonzalez (2012-18)
Lost in the glitter and glam of a marquee commanded by names like Scherzer, Strasburg and Harper, Gonzalez supplied more than his fair share of success in a Nationals uniform, often under the radar.
The Miami area-born southpaw began his career with Oakland, where he evolved and excelled in the last two of four seasons (31-21 record, 3.17 ERA from 2010-11) before falling victim to Billy Beane’s limited payroll. Traded to the Nationals in 2012, Gonzalez found immediate prosperity by winning a major league-leading 21 games (against eight losses) and career-low 2.89 ERA to finish third in the NL Cy Young Award vote.
On the heels of his tremendous D.C. debut, Gonzalez was unwittingly sucked into the Biogenesis steroid scandal when his name appeared on a list of major leaguers found at the Miami anti-aging clinic. While most of the other players whose names on that list (such as Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun) ultimately confessed to taking PEDs from Biogenesis, Gonzalez flatly denied any involvement—saying his name was likely on it because his father, living nearby, frequented the clinic for more legitimate treatments.
Gonzalez’s ensuing years with the Nationals showed steady if not superb results. From 2013-16 he maintained an annual take of 10 or 11 wins with agreeable ERAs, then enjoyed a mild renaissance in 2017 when he posted a 15-9 record and 2.96 ERA. That latter figure ranked as the NL’s fifth best—but third best on the Nationals behind Scherzer and Strasburg, once more affirming his status as a relatively obscure presence in the Washington rotation.
In postseason play, Gonzalez’s profile has been odd to say the least. He’s made eight playoff starts (six for Washington, two for Milwaukee) but has failed to get a decision in any of them, in part because he’s been yanked much sooner than later—averaging less than four innings per start.
Washington Nationals Team History A decade-by-decade history of the Nationals, the ballparks they’ve played in, and the four people who are on the franchise’s Mount Rushmore.
The Nationals’ Five Greatest Hitters A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Nationals’ Five Most Memorable Games A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Nationals’ history.