Where have they gone? In their three starts in this National League Division Series, they have allowed the Cards a total of 10 runs by the end of the second inning. Few teams can overcome such deficits, particularly a young team in its first postseason like the Nats, who now face elimination if they don’t win Game 4 on Thursday at Nationals Park.
Whether cause and effect is actually in play, or mere coincidence, the Nats’ starting rotation is in danger of being remembered as a group that was out of its comfort zone in the absence of its ace, at least under postseason pressure against a savvy, veteran fastball-hunting team like the Cardinals.
Does this mean the Strasburg decision was wrong? No. The Nats shut down Strasburg because they felt it was in the best long-term interests of the pitcher and the franchise. That’s a medical, conscience and business, as well as baseball, decision. And Strasburg’s final few starts gave cause to think his effectiveness for the rest of 2012 was already questionable.
But what’s befallen the Nats so far in the NLDS might, in part, be a price that the team knew it was risking for their principled Strasburg decision.
“A boat race is never fun,” said Nats shortstop Ian Desmond (who has seven hits in 12 at-bats in the series), in the classic ballplayer expression for a boring, lopsided game. That captures Washington’s 8-0 defeat on Wednesday, which follows Monday’s 12-4 loss in St. Louis. Those, in turn, evoke 12-2 and 10-4 losses to the same Cards on the road less than two weeks ago.
Just as Gonzalez walked four men and threw a wild pitch in the second inning in Game 1, then finished with seven walks; just as Zimmermann gave up four runs in the second inning and a homer in the third on Monday, so Jackson imploded, too, allowing four runs in the first two innings Wednesday.
The big blow was a first-pitch three-run homer by No. 8-hitting rookie Pete Kozma, who’s hit .223 in 846 at bats for Class AAA Memphis the past two years. Ushers in the Pacific Coast League get him out. He keeps killing the Nats.
Thus was the most glorious baseball day in D.C. in 79 years turned into an echo of Monday. The balmy afternoon was gorgeous, with puffy white clouds like a child’s playroom. The crowd came early, roared when asked or on any cheerful whim. They wore as much red as you’d see at any Capitals hockey game. From a jet flyover to ex-Nats manager Frank Robinson throwing out the first pitch everything was perfect, except the score.
Anyone who thinks this series is over hasn’t wasted nearly enough time studying past postseasons. The list of teams that won two straight games, both at home, to advance in the playoffs or win the World Series is so long that I once wrote a column on how rich you’d be if you just bet that down-one-game, last-two-at-home scenario. It’s tough to eliminate good teams on their home field. They get ornery. And, frankly, it’s much easier to play or pitch when you’re desperate. It focuses the mind wonderfully.