Why the Nationals Can Do Damage in the Playoffs without Stephen Strasburg
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Perhaps you heard that the Washington Nationals shut Stephen Strasburg down for the season after his start on Friday (Sept. 7). It's been kind of a big deal.
Virtually all of the attention surrounding the Nationals over the past few days—or has it really been the past couple of months—concerned the Strasburg September shutdown.
One of the reasons given for shutting Strasburg down—one appearance before what was believed to be his final outing on Sept. 12—is that manager Davey Johnson believed that all of the scrutiny over Strasburg's innings limit had become a major distraction for the 23-year-old phenom and the rest of the team.
It's delusional for the Nationals to think that the players won't continue to be asked about Strasburg's shutdown through the rest of the regular season and into the postseason, especially if the starting pitching falters in any way.
But here's the thing: The pitching won't falter and neither will the rest of the team. The Nats are still one of the best teams in the National League—with perhaps the most complete roster in terms of batting and pitching right now—and should make a run for the World Series even without their star right-hander.
Plenty of Starting Pitching Remains
Obviously, the Nationals are a better team with Strasburg on the active roster. But this is a starting rotation that has a collective 3.33 ERA as of Sept. 11, the best mark in MLB. Strasburg played a big part in that, of course, but such a number isn't compiled with just one pitcher throwing well.
Gio Gonzalez has been one of the best pitchers in the NL all season, giving the Nats a strong No. 2 pitcher behind Strasburg.
But on plenty of other teams, he would be the No. 1 guy. Gonzalez is among the NL's top five starting pitchers with a 2.93 ERA, and his 1.13 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is the sixth-best in the league. Plus no starter in the majors has a lower opponents' batting average than Gonzalez's .206.
The rest of the Nats' rotation continues to look impressive. Jordan Zimmermann's 2.99 ERA and 1.15 WHIP rank him among the top 10 starters in the NL. Edwin Jackson has a 3.85 ERA and his strikeout rate of 8.0 Ks per nine innings is the second-highest of his 10-year major league career. Ross Detwiler has been excellent as the fifth (now fourth) starter with a 3.23 ERA this season.
John Lannan will take Strasburg's turn in the Nats' rotation, meaning he'll probably pitch four times through the rest of the regular season. Lannan had a 4.30 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse, but that might be attributable to the disappointment of losing a spot in the rotation at the end of spring training. If he wants to pitch meaningful major league innings, he'll have a chance to do so now.
The Bullpen is Excellent
Last year's postseason demonstrated how important it is for a team to have a deep bullpen in a playoff series. Both the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals needed their relief corps to take the ball when the starting pitching couldn't pitch into the later innings.
The Nationals are well equipped to do the same if their starter is chased after four or five innings.
With the return of injured closer Drew Storen (3.10 ERA in 25 appearances), Washington can go at least five relievers deep into the bullpen in any given game. Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Sean Burnett each have ERAs under 3.00 in middle relief. Tyler Clippard took over as closer while Storen was out and has saved 30 games while striking out 76 batters in 64 innings.
The Nats also have two pitchers capable of pitching in long relief if needed. Tom Gorzelanny and Chien-Ming Wang are accustomed to pitching many innings and could be a crucial bridge between the starter and late-inning relief.
Offense: Full Strength
The Nationals took the lead in the NL East in early April despite an offense that was missing several key bats.
Michael Morse, the team's leading home run and RBI man last season, injured a lat muscle in spring training and wasn't available until June.
Ryan Zimmerman was sidelined with a shoulder injury for 13 games through April and May. The shoulder plagued him until he took a cortisone shot for it in late June.
Additionally, Jayson Werth was knocked out of the lineup in early May with a broken wrist and didn't return until August. Wilson Ramos soon joined him on the disabled list with a torn ACL.
Being shorthanded on offense is what compelled the Nats to call up Bryce Harper from the minors at the end of April. Harper was an NL Rookie of the Year candidate through most of the season before slumping in July and August. However, he seems to have turned himself around in September.
First baseman Adam LaRoche has regained his 30-homer, 100-RBI form after a shoulder injury last year, giving Washington a strong middle of the order to go with Zimmerman, Morse and shortstop Ian Desmond.
Going into the final weeks on the schedule and into the postseason, the Nats have the lineup they envisioned at the start of the season. After a slow start, Washington has scored the fourth-most runs in the NL.
Draw the Wild Card
As the team with the best record in the NL, the Nationals would play their divisional playoff series against the winner of the one-game wild-card tiebreaker.
The Nationals currently have a 10-5 record against their intra-divisional rivals this season. It's one reason the Nats have been able to build a strong first-place lead in the NL East.
The sample size is much smaller versus the Cardinals, though the two teams will also face each other three more times before the end of the season. The Nationals have taken three of four games from the Cards thus far.
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