The Nats are on the brink, but let’s not blame the absence of Stephen Strasburg

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Nationals had the best record in baseball and the best rotation heading into the postseason. But now, after consecutive awful outings by the pitching staff, the Cards lead the Nats 2-1 in this best of five series. They lost 8-0 today.

Edwin Jackson was shaky out of the chute, and gave up four runs on eight hits. He settled down a bit, but as he made way for the bullpen, the fire began to rage again, and before it was all done the Cards had hung eight on the Nats. Pete Kozma’s three-run homer in the second was the big blow, but the Cardinals ended up needing only one run to secure the win.

The hittability of Nats pitchers led broadcasters Bob Costas and Jim Kaat to note the absence of Stephen Strasburg. And to note that his absence will turn into serious heat on Mike Rizzo and the Nats brass should Washington go on to lose this series.  I think they’re right about that.  And indeed, anyone who has read this blog over the past few months knows that I disagreed with the Nats shutting down Strasburg too. But let me say this: the way the Nats are losing this series shouldn’t bring any more heat on Rizzo for the Strasburg shutdown than he’s otherwise getting.

The Nats won Game 1 with Gio Gonzalez. They lost Games 2 and 3 due to poor outings from Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson. Guess what: barring a sweep, all three of those pitchers would have gotten starts in the NLDS. They needed Jackson and Zimmermann to pitch well even if Strasburg was there. They didn’t. The biggest difference will be seen in Game 4 when Ross Detwiler gets the nod, but his presence has yet to damage Washington’s chances.

Beyond the poor outings from Zimmermann and Jackson, the real culprit here has been the Nationals’ somnambulistic offense.  Washington was shut out today, leaving scads of runners on base — I counted 11. On Monday they were down 7-1 before the bats woke up. Even in the win on Saturday they scored only three. You can’t give up 22 runs in three games and expect good things, but you gotta score some runs yourself too, you know.

So no, I’m not changing my mind about the Stephen Strasburg shutdown. I still think it’s a bad call to willingly deprive yourself of your best pitcher entering a playoff series. And if the difference in this series ends up being one solid pitching performance, I’ll be willing to entertain the notion that Strasburg was as critical as people will soon be saying.  But, as it is right now, let’s not pretend that Stephen Strasburg’s absence is the difference here.  The Nats are in serious trouble, and it is because of a total team failure, not because of some front office decision.

Oh, it also has a lot to do with the fact that the Cardinals — who just so happen to be the defending World Series champions — are a good baseball team who have gotten strong performances from just about everyone. Let us not lose sight of that when everyone rushes to blame the outcome of this series on the absence of Stephen Strasburg.

Aaron Judge set a new postseason strikeout record

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For a few days, it looked like Aaron Judge was finally hitting his stride in the postseason. He was still striking out at a regular clip, piling more and more strikeouts atop the 16 he racked up in the Division Series, but he was mashing, too. He engineered a three-run homer during Game 3 of the Championship Series, followed by another blast and game-tying double in Game 4. His one-out double helped pad a five-run lead in Game 5, while his 425-footer off of Brad Peacock barely made a dent during a 7-1 loss in Game 6. And then Lance McCullers‘ curveball found and fooled him, as it did five of the 14 batters it met in Game 7:

The strikeout was Judge’s first of the evening and 27th since the start of the playoffs. No other major league batter has racked up that many strikeouts in a single postseason, though Alfonso Soriano’s 26-strikeout record in 2003 comes the closest. Within that record, Judge also collected three golden sombreros (four strikeouts in a single game), narrowly avoiding the dreaded platinum sombrero (five strikeouts in a single game).

It’s an unfortunate footnote to a spectacular year for the rookie outfielder, who decimated the competition with 52 home runs and 8.2 fWAR during the regular season and was a pivotal part of the Yankees’ playoff run. Thankfully, the image of McCullers’ curveball darting just under Judge’s bat won’t be the image that sticks with us for years to come. Instead, it’ll look something like this: