The Washington Nationals have two problems. Maybe they are connected. They don’t have Stephen Strasburg. That’s tough enough. But they also don’t have Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson. That’s much worse.
Or at least the Nats don’t have the Gonzalez who won 21 games this season or the Zimmermann who has been in the top 10 in the National League in ERA the past two years or the playoff veteran Jackson who was in the rotation of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals last year.
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.
The Nats know how tough it is to clinch from the heartburn the Atlanta Braves caused them in September. If you force a winner-take-all-game, the momentum generally shifts for the last time and home field matters.
It’s winning that last-gasp elimination game that’s the trick.
“You can’t be scared,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “If you are, get a dog.”
“It was great to see the park filled to the brim,” outfielder Jayson Werth said of the Nationals Park-record 45,017. “Tomorrow I hope we give ‘em something to cheer about. . . . I don’t feel too bad about the spot we’re in. . . . We’ve got [Ross] Detwiler going and Gio in Game 5. I like our chances. But you gotta win tomorrow.”
As fate would have it, Detwiler is the pitcher who has actually replaced Strasburg in the postseason four-man rotation, just as John Lannan took his place in September in the five-man rotation and went 2-1. Gio, Jordan and Jackson were all going to pitch in this series anyway. If Detwiler and the Nats win Game 4, how’s that different from having Strasburg?
Actually, there may be a subtle difference, a kind of trickle-down effect. This spring, as the Nats were forming the team identity that eventually would win 98 games, the best record in baseball, Manager Davey Johnson was asked to line up his rotation. Gonzalez had been an all-star. But Zimmermann was the ’11 staff leader. Jackson had been in a world champ’s rotation. Strasburg had only six wins in his career. But he was Strasburg.
Johnson said the order was natural and obvious. He saw it, but so did his pitchers. And they were happy with it. “Everybody fits,” Johnson said. Strasburg had the ace mentality and menace. The jovial Gio was a natural second banana, slipstreaming behind him. Zimmermann, teased for not having a pulse, would be happy to pitch in Nome, Alaska, with only seals for an audience. Attention, who needs it? Jackson didn’t mind being No. 4 at all.
On opening day, the Nats won 2-1 behind Strasburg. They started 14-4 and never looked back. Few rotations ever looked so at peace with their roles or delighted with each other. Could the change of roles be a factor now?
Johnson acknowledged it was possible “but it is what it is. It’s no excuse.”
“Nobody’s worried about that. It doesn’t bother them one bit,” McCatty said. “The day you pitch, you’re the number one starter. That’s all.”
Teams find out about themselves at times like this, both now and for future seasons. The Nats are tight. But plenty of teams have gotten the playoff jitters far worse. Their cure is baseball’s oldest fix: just get a lead.
“Get a big hit, get ahead. Let the dugout exhale,” said infielder-outfielder Mark DeRosa, who has played little this year and isn’t even eligible for this series, but is a major clubhouse figure because of his experience, intelligence and humor.
“October is about attitude. We need to draw on the fact that we’ve been the best team in baseball all season,” said DeRosa who hates the phrase it’s-just-like-any-other-game. “I like putting extra pressure on. Your pitcher has to stay calm. But as position players, we can all lose our minds.”
With that, DeRosa was off on a riff, preparing his pregame remarks for Thursday. “I’m not even on the roster and I already know how Kyle Lohse will pitch me,” DeRosa said. “He’s got no shot tomorrow.”
In other sports, you can’t look as bad as the Nats have for two games and laugh about it. You can’t endure two boat races and blow it off. In the baseball playoffs, you must or the pressure will eat you up. You won more than anybody, so win two more. Convince yourself. Or pack up and go home.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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Photos: Scenes from Nationals Park