WASHINGTON -- The Cardinals are one win away from doing to the Nationals what the Nationals did to their star young pitcher Stephen Strasburg: total shutdown. Whether the two are related is open to debate, which could really heat up in a hurry Thursday.
Who knows if the Nationals could have avoided being down 2-1 in the Division Series, and being blitzed two games in a row, if they had not decided to protect Strasburg's surgically repaired arm by ending his season on Sept. 7? The way things have gone, especially in an 8-0 drubbing at home Wednesday, he certainly could not have hurt. In any case, they are one loss from elimination.
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Edwin Jackson became the latest pitcher to put the Nationals in a deep hole, allowing four runs to the surging Cardinals before he got one out in the second inning. Now the surprising season, in which the Nationals had the best record in the majors through 162 games, rides on another young pitcher, Ross Detwiler, who will pitch Game 4 of the best-of-five Thursday.
"Shoot," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said, "I've had my back to worse walls than this."
The problem for his club is that the Cardinals have been hitting baseballs off and over walls in this series. Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma, who was involved in the infamous infield-fly-rule pop last Friday in Atlanta, hit a three-run shot against Jackson in the second to give St. Louis a 4-0 lead. That was plenty for starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, who missed almost all of the season with neck and shoulder issues that required surgery and had not won since Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. The man who went 4-0 in last year's postseason had a bend-but-don't-break effort in his 52/3 innings.
"My first at-bat, Joe West the [plate] umpire said to me something about what a beautiful day to play baseball," Carpenter said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, you know what? You're right.' "
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo believes that Strasburg will have many big, clutch games, the way Carpenter has. So he stuck to his plan to shut him down early during his first season back from Tommy John surgery. It was a nod toward future success -- although no city knows better than Washington that you can't take postseason appearances for granted. Wednesday was the first postseason game in the city since 1933.
"We should have given them a better showing," said shortstop Ian Desmond, a rare bright spot with a .583 average this series after having gone 3-for-4 Wednesday. Overall, his team has been outscored 22-7 and gone only 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position.
Perhaps their karma would have been much better had the Nationals been able to start Strasburg instead of Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2. That issue is bound to come up all winter. In fact, it has been brewing all summer.
"If you'd been a fan of the Nationals, you would see that we've been dealing with that kind of stuff all year long. I don't think we're at any disadvantage. We've got great pitching," Desmond said.
Rightfielder Jayson Werth added, "I don't think there's any way around it. It's going to be a topic, no matter what. Looking back to last year, I questioned why we were bringing him off the [disabled list] so early. The answer I got was, to build his innings up so he could get to the 160, 180 mark this year. So I've kind of known for two years how we were going to play it and it's never really been an issue for me. Obviously, the media and the rest of the world weren't in on that conversation."
Now, the conversation is about the Nationals having their backs against a wall, as Johnson did as Mets manager in 1986. This time, he can't count on the likes of Bill Buckner, or Strasburg.