Has Stephen Strasburg's shutdown come back to hurt the Nationals?
Were the Nationals blowing their chance at a World Series championship by sidelining their ace starting pitcher?
Gio Gonzalez was one of the NL's best pitchers this year—perhaps better than Strasburg. Jordan Zimmermann was among the league leaders in ERA throughout the season. Edwin Jackson had ERAs under 4.00 during the past two seasons with the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.
Yet as strong as that starting rotation may have looked for the playoffs, it would have been even better with Strasburg at the top, pitching in Game 1 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Those voices will only get louder after the performance of the Nationals' starting pitching in the first three games of this series.
In Game 1, Gonzalez walked seven batters in five innings. Despite allowing only one hit, he gave up two runs. Gonzalez's lack of control and 110 pitches forced Nats manager Davey Johnson to go to his bullpen early and use four pitchers to grind out a 3-2 win.
Jordan Zimmermann lasted only three innings in Game 2, giving up five runs and seven hits. That meant the Nats had to use their relievers earlier than they wanted once again. Six of them appeared in the game, to be exact. The Cardinals' lineup ended up pounding the Nationals for 12 runs.
With a day off for travel before Wednesday's Game 3 (Oct. 10), Washington had a presumably rested bullpen.
But it would have helped if Edwin Jackson had pitched well—and better yet, deeper into the ballgame. Unfortunately, St. Louis jumped on Jackson early, scoring four runs in the first two innings.
Jackson only made it through five frames while allowing four runs and eight hits. Once again, the Nationals had to use four relievers in the game. But the Nats' bullpen couldn't clamp down the Cardinals' offense. St. Louis scored four more runs in an 8-0 victory that gave the Cards a 2-1 series lead and put the Nationals on the brink of elimination.
Would Strasburg have made a difference in the first three games of this NLDS for the Nationals?
It's surely a frustrating answer, but we'll never know. "We'll never know" became the answer to every question about Strasburg and the Nats' playoff chances as soon as the 23-year-old right-hander was shut down in early September.
There's no guarantee that Strasburg would have pitched six scoreless innings had he been available. Some might point to the fact that Strasburg did just that when he faced St. Louis in his second-to-last start of the season. He allowed only two hits with nine strikeouts in that game.
Of course, that doesn't mean Strasburg would have repeated such a performance. He also might not have been able to pitch more than five innings if the Nationals still insisted on limiting his workload. So that wouldn't have helped out the bullpen at all.
Another problem with the Strasburg-as-savior theory is that the Nationals haven't scored enough runs in the NLDS.
In three games, the Nats' lineup has put seven runs on the scoreboard. That's just over two runs per game. No team is going to win with that kind of offensive output, barring some shutdown baseball from its pitching staff.
Not only is that asking too much from the starting pitchers and relievers, but it's an especially unrealistic expectation against the Cardinals. St. Louis scored the second-most runs in the NL this season. It also had the league's second-highest team batting average and ranked third in team OPS.
A team that averaged nearly five runs a game (765 runs scored in 162 games) isn't going to be held in check very often. Though there was a four-game stretch between Aug. 28 and Sept. 1 when the Cardinals scored only one run. If only the Nationals could have faced the Cards then. And hey, they still would've had Strasburg available!
But where did the Nationals' offense go? Washington ranked fifth in team runs scored while also placing fourth in batting average and OPS. That's the missing element for the Nats in this series—not Strasburg.
However, the question is whether or not the Nationals essentially sabotaged their chance to contend for a championship by not fielding the best roster for the postseason.
Without Strasburg, it's impossible for the Nats to argue that they did so. However, it is worth noting that shutting him down may have been the right decision considering how he pitched at the end of the season; Strasburg gave up five runs in two of his final three starts.
But unless the Nationals come back to win this NLDS, the question won't go away. The same doubts will hang over the Nats during the NLCS and through the World Series unless they win a championship. What if the Nats hadn't shut down Strasburg?
The mistake that Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo made was allowing the question to be asked in the first place.
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