NAT GIO: Gonzalez has been electrifying for the Nationals, but his peers in the division have been equally impressive. Photo by Bryan Lienesch

Last year, when the Philadelphia Phillies amassed Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt into the same rotation, many called it the best squad in decades. Some even said it was the best starting rotation EVER throughout a history that dates back almost to the civil war. Now, in 2012, that force of Philadelphia pitchers is still largely intact but they’ve almost become an afterthought in their own division.

That’s just how far the N.L. East — the only division in baseball where EVERY team has a record better than .500 — has come in a little more than a year.

In Atlanta, Brandon Beachy, an undrafted free agent who quickly rose through a talented farm of pitchers, holds the best ERA in baseball at 1.77. Let’s put that into context for a moment. When you’re team is facing Beachy, you’ll be lucky if you get two runs while he’s in the game. How many times will that win you a ballgame? And with Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s setting a high bar for some premium pitching talent. In fact, the trio is one of the major reasons that, despite an 8-game losing streak and a rash of injuries, the club still has a winning record.

In Washington, Gio Gonzalez keeps having to retake over the league lead in strikeouts. That’s because his teammate, young pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, back healthy from Tommy John surgery, keeps surpassing him with every start he makes. But they aren’t the only two making contributions in the nation’s capital. Edwin Jackson, the team’s FOURTH starter, is just outside the top ten pitchers in baseball when it comes to WHIP and that’s not even mentioning the kind of season Jordan Zimmermann is having. In fact, the pitching staff as a collective unit is the only team in the majors currently with an ERA under 3.00. Oh yeah, and they’re deep. Ross Detwiler (3.88 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 36 K, 48 IP, .254 BAA) just got ousted from the rotation because the ballclub actually has BETTER options available.

In New York, the Mets continue to disprove haters that were looking to put salt on the wounds of a downtrodden season. Their mighty pitcher, Johan Santana, is FINALLY back and is somehow managing to live up to those expectations the team when they acquired him way back when. His ERA is at 2.75, his WHIP is at 1.10, and he’s K’d more than enough batters for every inning he’s pitched. Behind their now resurgent ace, the Mets have put together an impressive band of misfits. R.A. Dickey has undoubtedly driven to Citi Field faster than some of the balls he’s thrown for strikes, but they’ve been effective. Through yesterday, the knuckleballer was an impressive 7-1 with an equally low WHIP and an ERA just over 3.00. Even the youngster Jon Niese has found ways to contribute only allowing opposing teams to bat .230 against him despite other less-than-impressive numbers.

In Miami, Carlos Zambrano is beginning to look a bit like his former self. After his outing yesterday, the Z-man’s ERA sits right at 3.00 and his BAA and WHIP are equally impressive. The point here is he’s performed quite nicely as the fourth man in the rotation while their all-star pitcher Josh Johnson continues to struggle. Don’t worry, though: That BAA over .300 and ERA near 5.00 won’t last. In the meantime, Mark Buerhle, one of Miami’s many offseason acquisitions, is proving to be an effective temporary ace as his 5-4 record is not indicative of how effectively he’s been throwing the ball.

And then there’s Philadelphia. Oswalt is gone (for now) but Doc, Lee, and Cole remain. The team even scrounged up a surprise in their rather depleted farm system in Vance Worley. Although he’s on the DL right now, he has an ERA of 2.91, WHIP of 1.23, and BAA of .240 in his first 200 innings or so in the big leagues. Not too shabby for a 24-year-old. In fact the only downside here really is the fact that Joe Blanton continues to disappoint even as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

If you didn’t catch it through my lengthy explanation what I’m trying to say is the best division in baseball is being driven by some of the best pitching in the league. Whether it be the return of Santana and Strasburg or the trade for Gio Gonzalez or the signings of Mark Buerhle and Edwin Jackson, there’s no denying that there has been a monstrous influx of pitching talent into the division and it seems to be the reason why every team is playing great baseball right now.

But what this importation has really done is thrown momentum around in classic battle between pitching and hitting. You see, like a pendulum, power and dominance, whether it be at the team, division, or league level, seems to swing back and forth between the two parties. Now with a major boost in talent on the pitching mound, the batters appear to be outgunned. And these teams aren’t exactly shy on firepower.

So, going forward, what does this mean? First of all, pitching in the playoffs is like goaltending in hockey: you absolutely have to have it if you’re going to make a push. So whoever makes the playoffs out of this division is going to well-equipped to make a run at the World Series. But who will that be? Someone undoubtedly will win the pennant, but as many as two other teams may join them via wild card berths. Last year’s division winners are currently last. The bottom three teams are currently the top three teams. Everything right now is topsy-turvy and nothing about it appears to be a fluke.

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