“Starting pitching is absolutely our biggest strength,” reliever Sean Doolittle said.
In other news, water is wet, grass is green, the earth is round, and Stephen Strasburg’s change-up is filthy.
We can spend the endless hours before Nationals Park hosts the first National League Championship Series game in this city’s history wondering whether center fielder Victor Robles will return to the Nats’ lineup or how the Nats will hit St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty. But the only analysis of this postseason that really matters at the moment, especially in the District, is that Washington’s rotation encountered a knife fight and brought a bazooka. Or four.
We know the status of the best-of-seven series — the Nats with a 2-0 lead over the Cardinals, with the next three (if necessary) at home — is the direct result of Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer combining for 14 2/3 innings of two-hit ball over the first two games. Different pitchers. Different styles. Same result.
“Just seems like they were just playing catch out there,” said Strasburg, who will get the ball to oppose Flaherty on Monday night.
Catch, with a purpose. Before we get to the numbers, which are staggering, consider the visceral aspect of those performances not to us, as outsiders, but to those in the fight.
“When the starting pitching is cruising the way that these guys have done so far in this series, you do feed off that energy,” Doolittle said after Saturday’s 3-1 victory in Game 2. “It gives you some confidence that if you go in and attack, you can pick up where they left off and kind of carry that baton forward. We definitely feed off that energy. It’s a very calming confidence.”
It should be, especially considering that in this series alone, Sánchez and Scherzer have combined to get 44 outs, leaving relievers (which included left-handed starter Patrick Corbin for one batter Saturday) to get just 10. Less work for the bullpen equals less stress for everyone. It’s a formula that’s threatening to usher St. Louis right out of the postseason.
“There’s not been a lot of pitches to feast on,” Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt said.
Eight games into this postseason, here are the categories in which Nats starters lead their counterparts, along with some historical context, courtesy of Elias:
• ERA, which is 1.81. Last year’s Milwaukee Brewers were better at 1.64, but before that, you have to go back to the 1996 Atlanta Braves — a rotation fronted by Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Trying to remember what those three have in common. Oh, right. They’re all in the Hall of Fame.
• Walks and hits per inning pitched, which is 0.87. Among teams that played at least eight postseason games, the most recent rotation with a better WHIP would be the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. Recall who led that World Series-winning group? That would be Randy Johnson, five-time Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer, and Curt Schilling, six-time all-star.
• Batting average against, as mentioned above, which is .150. The closest to these Nats among teams with at least eight postseason games: those 2001 Diamondbacks (. 175) and the 1972 Oakland Athletics, led by Catfish Hunter, a — you guessed it — Hall of Famer, with contributions from Cy Young winner Vida Blue and all-stars Ken Holtzman and Blue Moon Odom.
Kind of amazing that this whole postseason run started with a walk and a homer and Scherzer in a hole just two batters into the wild-card game against the Brewers. Even more surprising that the fifth and decisive game of the division series began with a double and a homer and Strasburg in a hole against the Dodgers. Those two games, from the Nats’ two best pitchers, are the only times a Nats starter has allowed more than one earned run.
This all fits into a postseason that has been defined by starting pitching. On the night the Nats eliminated the Dodgers, L.A. right-hander Walker Buehler pushed himself to a career-high 117 pitches, and he allowed just one run in his two starts. The best starting pitcher in these playoffs probably isn’t a National but is Houston right-hander Gerrit Cole, who has allowed one earned run in 15⅔ innings, over which he has 25 strikeouts.
At 23, Flaherty was the NL’s best pitcher of the second half (0.91 ERA), but the Cardinals have also received valiant efforts from 38-year-old Adam Wainwright, who nearly matched Scherzer in Game 2. The shakiest rotation in baseball’s final four belongs to the New York Yankees, yet Masahiro Tanaka opened the American League Championship Series with six innings of one-hit, scoreless ball against the Astros.
If those characters end up being the group that’s remembered from this October, then the Nats believe they’ll fit right in — and maybe lead the way. The whole tenor had Mike Rizzo, the general manager and architect of these Nats, repeating what might be his favorite baseball axiom in a victorious clubhouse after Game 1: “Once you have starting pitching, anything is possible. And if you don’t have it, nothing is possible.”
Strasburg is on the mound Monday, when what’s possible is to take a three-game lead over the Cardinals. Corbin follows Tuesday, when the possibilities include — get this — a sweep. This October is about starting pitchers, and because the Nats have the best group — a potentially historic group — there are no limits to what they can accomplish.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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