When the Washington Nationals' Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson chose to shut down Steven Strasburg for the postseason, they knew there were enough arms in the starting rotation to get deep into a series.
While Jayson Werth’s epic home run means the Nationals have staved off elimination for another day, Ross Detwiler's game four performance has validated Rizzo and Johnson's gamble.
With all the controversy surrounding the absence of Washington’s ace, Detwiler’s dominance of the world-champion St. Louis Cardinals magnified the depth of the Nationals rotation. Detwiler, probably no worse than a number three in most rotations, pitched like an ace in game four.
He was brilliant in giving the Nationals a desperately needed quality start by going 6 IP and not giving up an earned run. That set the stage for another outstanding performance by their bullpen, which held the Cardinals scoreless over 3 IP with 8 strikeouts. They shut down an offense that had punished them for 20 runs in games two and three.
Detwiler, Jordan Zimmerman, Tyler Clippard, or Drew Storen aren’t as individually dominant as Strasburg.
However, the quartet put on a Stras-like performance tonight in holding the Cardinals to a run on three hits while striking out 10. They were so un-hittable that at one point they retired six consecutive St. Louis batters in the seventh and eighth innings via strikeout.
Finally, the Nationals got the type of starting pitching that helped them to a league leading 98 wins during the regular season. Detwiler kept the Cardinals batters off balance and was the first Washington starter to take the mound with command, and located his off speed pitches with pinpoint control. Kyle Lohse was able to match him blow for blow, but made the one telling mistake that Adam LaRoche deposited 417 feet to the center field bleachers.
The Nationals are not missing Strasburg as much as they are missing the DC power exchange that accounted for 194 home runs during the regular season. Johnson doesn’t manage to manufacture runs. Instead he plays for the big flies—although for most of this series they have mostly been fly outs.
That Washington is playing in a game five speaks to their ability to overcome an offensive slump at the worst time of the year. The Nationals are pressing at the plate and have been undisciplined in their approach to the Cardinals pitching. They aren’t taking pitches and have bailed St. Louis starters out of trouble by expanding their strike zone and swinging at bad pitches.
The two biggest culprits have been Bryce Harper and Michael Morse. Harper is 1 for 18 for a .056 batting average with six strikeouts through the first four games of the series. Morse is only batting .200 on 3 for 15 with three strikeouts. In game four the dubious offensive duo was 0 for 6 with a strikeout, and they faced only 18 pitches between them.
Strasburg’s absence in this series is not an issue heading into game five. If the Nationals are to advance to the National League Championship Series they will have to find a cure for a frigid offense that is batting just .215 as a team with only three home runs. Johnson may have to shake up his lineup by starting Steve Lombardozzi instead of the struggling Harper. He may also want to consider Roger Bernadina as an option for the pressing Morse as well.
Gio Gonzalez has bounced back from rocky starts all season and he figures to do it again versus the Cardinals Friday night. However, it may not be enough if the Nationals can’t find a way to score at least three runs against a team who has outscored them 23-9 through the first four games.