The Washington Nationals’ response: “Okay, you’ve got Jack going? All right.” And they depantsed him, just as they’re doing to all of baseball at the moment.
Get off the tracks, because these Nationals, they are a runaway train right now. The first National League Championship Series game in the history of this city began under perfect conditions — packed park, 71 degrees, home team and home fans with unprecedented swagger — and only got better.
They won going away, 8-1. They lead the series, three games to none. They play Tuesday for the right to go to this town’s first World Series in 86 years. They have two losses in the past three weeks.
They are, somehow and suddenly, a machine. From 12 games under .500 in May and left for dead to one win from the pennant and roaring through October. Kinda miraculous.
“This team is not a miracle,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “Look who’s in here.”
He is speaking of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto and all the rest. The pieces and parts, they were around since spring. They’re just now humming at the perfect time.
This run, dating back to the eight-game winning streak that closed the regular season, is now 15 wins in 17 games. During it, the Nats snuffed the postseason hopes of both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cleveland Indians. Since the playoffs started, they kneecapped the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers and are in the process of absolutely suffocating the Cardinals. Pick your stat to show the dominance, but here’s a favorite: There have been 27 innings played in this series. The Nats have been tied after five of them — and led after the other 22.
“Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead,” Shildt said.
A legitimate lament. For the Nats, it’s the opposite. Confidence has replaced doubt. Joy has replaced dread. Smiles all around.
“If you don’t have fun in this game, or in anything that you do,” said third baseman Anthony Rendon, “then in the end, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
The Nats are doing it.
“We’ve done nothing yet,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman countered.
Technically, yes. But think of it like this: In order for the Cardinals to push this series back to St. Louis, they have to beat the Nationals in back-to-back games, games that will be started by $140 million lefty Patrick Corbin and veteran right-hander Aníbal Sánchez, who was last seen carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his start against the Cards in Game 1. The last time the Nats lost consecutive games: a month ago, Sept. 13 and 14, to the Atlanta Braves.
Here’s about what went wrong Monday night, in front of a sellout crowd of 43,675: Soto slipped in left field, allowing the Cards their only run, and Stephen Strasburg had to pace around the mound for Michael Buffer, the legendary (and out-of-place) boxing ring announcer, to finally belt out, “Let’s get ready to rumbllllllllllllle — and play ball!”
Strasburg was so thrown off by the theatrics that he needed three pitches to discard Cardinals leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler.
That’s where these Nats are right now, with more October moxie than any of the four previous versions that played in the postseason. Instead of shrinking from the moment, they are swelling in it.
How they dealt with Flaherty is a glimpse into that attitude. He has developed into the Cardinals’ ace, as important to their NL Central championship as any player. Over his past 18 starts, including two in the playoffs, his numbers were remarkable: a 1.13 ERA in which he allowed opposing hitters a .151 average and a teeny-weeny .435 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Not once, in those 18 starts, did he allow more than three runs.
In the third inning, the Nats tagged him for four.
So put Flaherty’s pelt on the wall, if there’s space left. Pitchers Washington has victimized this postseason throw with different arms and have vastly different résumés, but there are some choice names.
They beat Josh Hader, Milwaukee’s nasty left-handed reliever, who entered the eighth inning of the wild-card game with a two-run lead and walked out of Nationals Park with his season over, the losing pitcher. They beat Clayton Kershaw, the legendary Dodgers lefty, essentially twice — first in his start in Game 2 of the division series, then on back-to-back homers that tied Game 5 in the eighth. On Saturday, they ground it out against Adam Wainwright, the 38-year-old St. Louis mainstay who — when the 20-year-old Soto was still playing coach-pitch Little League — helped pitched the Cards to the 2006 World Series title as an up-and-coming closer.
And now, Flaherty, who lasted all of four innings, and was tagged by the Nats’ pass-the-baton offense in that third — Eaton’s RBI single to Rendon’s run-scoring double to Soto’s full-count walk to Howie Kendrick’s two-run double.
Other teams don’t know these names? Study up, Houston and New York.
The names those teams and towns know, though, are the Nats’ spine of a rotation — Strasburg and Scherzer, Corbin and Sánchez. They are why this team withstood that lousy start. They are the reason they are plowing through the postseason. They are the reason it’s unimaginable that they’ll lose four straight.
“They’re what our team’s built around,” Zimmerman said. “Those guys, the horses that take the ball every fifth day.”
To the Cardinals, they look like Clydesdales. Strasburg essentially broke club bylaws by not taking a no-hitter into — or beyond — the seventh, as both Sanchez and Scherzer did in the two games in St. Louis. But he ended a 117-pitch outing with snarling strikeouts of Matt Wieters and the helpless Fowler on Strasburg’s unhittable change-up.
So add up the numbers, and use them to further present the case that the Nats’ formidable rotation has made them a formidable postseason team: 21⅔ innings pitched, nine hits, no earned runs, three walks and 28 strikeouts. In three games against all Nats’ pitchers, the Cards are hitting .121 with a .167 on-base percentage and a .143 slugging percentage.
Patrick Corbin, your turn.
“I know Corbin’s going to go out and try to be just as lights out as they have been,” Rendon said.
The poor Cards. They just happen to be in the way of the only Nationals’ team that has ever been playing its best ball headed into October, that had to survive a no-fingernails-left wild-card game, that found its groove in the division series.
Right now, the venue doesn’t matter. The opposing pitcher doesn’t matter. The Nats are rolling. Best to get out of the way. They have four chances to reach the World Series. What evidence is there they’ll need more than one?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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