On Sunday, Strasburg fanned nine Cards in six innings of scoreless ball. The Nats, with the best winning percentage in baseball, whipped defending champion St. Louis three out of four. The Nats now have a substantial 6½-game lead over the Braves in the National League East. Teams with such Labor Day leads almost always win their divisions. That, in its way made this day hurt more. This series simply underlined what a realistic chance the Nats would have to win the pennant and maybe even the World Series.
If only . . .
Sometimes numbers are more eloquent and sadder than words because they are harder to refute. In a weak year among NL powers, the Nats will seldom have a smoother path to a pennant. Look at the pitching hegemony the Nats would have brought to bear in the postseason when all teams use four starters. They’d have four of the top 15 in ERA among all starters in the NL. Only one NL team has more than one such pitcher (the Giants).
Also, the Nats would send out four of the top 15 NL starters in WHIP (walks and hits per inning), as well as four of the top 21 in lowest OPS (on-base-percentage plus slugging).
Finally, the Nats would have an overpowering staff with four of the top nine average-fastball-velocities in the NL. That’s almost insane.
On top of all that, the Nats would finally, if they stay intact, have their best seven hitters at the top of their lineup and their entire seven-deep bullpen all healthy at the same time. All season the Nats have waited for this full complement of top players. All in all, it’s a mighty powerful mixture.
Too bad: After 79 years waiting, we’re left with “might have beens.”
Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to have made a minor mistake in my calculations. The team I have just described is the Nationals without Strasburg.
The four-man rotation, primed for October that I’ve described is Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler.
So all of the pundits who say the Nats can’t go to the Series or even win it, just because they won’t have Strasburg, can kiss my press pass.
The three best teams in baseball this season have been Cincinnati (.607), Texas (.594) and Washington in games Strasburg didn’t pitch (.585).
The Nats are better with Strasburg, his 15-6 record and 2.94 ERA. But they aren’t enormously better. In his last 13 starts, the Nats are 7-6 and his ERA in that span (3.80) is only fourth out of five in the rotation.
For generations, fans have waited for a Washington pennant race, for playoff games and for a team with a reasonable chance to go deep into October. Now, they may feel like they are being coached to be sad, or mad, counting the days to some dismal Strasburg Shutdown, rather than enjoying a team that is playing better (.640 in its last 50 games) as it gets healthier.
The Nats watch all this with hard eyes. They’d love to have Strasburg. But they’re already digesting his absence and figuring out how to use it.
“I don’t think anybody is too worried,” said Adam LaRoche. “Our other starters go up against the best in the business and shut ’em down. You see teams piece it together late in the season and the postseason with just a couple of good pitchers. Come on. This is like a dream here for a manager or pitching coach to have that many options.
“We don’t even have to set it up our rotation against different top pitchers. It doesn’t matter [who] our other four staters are throwing against. They all match up with anybody.”
The Nats will have a curious advantage. They’re perhaps the only team ever to have a designated scapegoat before October arrives. “I’ve been beat up, barbecued, shellacked and ‘shillelaghed,’ ” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, the man solely responsible for Strasburg’s shutdown. “We’ll be fired up and ready for battle. And that guy [Strasburg] will be right in the dugout with us.”
“We can win without Strasburg,” said closer Tyler Clippard, who saved Sunday’s 4-3 win. “If we do and we have him next year, it’s even that much better. That’s the way I look at it. And it’s going to be exciting to do that. . . .
“I plan to use all the comments as a motivational tool. A lot of other guys will, too,” Clippard said. “Some people around the country think we can’t win without him. They haven’t been watching this ballclub very much — because we can. I think our fans understand that.”
The Nats will have limitations in October. Their offense is No. 12 in runs per game out of 30 teams. Their bullpen is good and deep, but not one of the most intimidating. They’re miserable at holding base runners. Even Ryan Zimmerman’s arm at third base on routine throws is one of the scarier sights in baseball with two one-hop-the-tarp jobs against the Cards.
However, the Nats have a strength so ridiculously deep they can sacrifice a star and perhaps only be marginally affected. You have to sense how unique their rotation is to understand how you could subtract Strasburg from it and still challenge for a pennant. With Strasburg, the Nats have five of the NL’s top 15 ERAs and five of its nine hardest throwers (which seems impossible). All five, are, essentially, in the top 20 in everything.
“You only need four” in October, said Manager Davey Johnson.
So, if you prefer, pity the poor Nats and believe that, in 10 days, their chances will shrivel. That’s what you’ll hear anyway.
But, even without Strasburg, the Nats are still neck-and-neck with the Reds, perhaps just a bit behind, as the best overall team in the NL.
Once you’re that good, anything can happen. No matter what anybody says.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/