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.

Video: Dexter Fowler robs Asdrúbal Cabrera of three-run homer

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler made a critical catch in the eighth inning of Wednesday afternoon’s series finale against the Nationals. With the Cardinals leading 5-1, the Nationals were threatening with runners on first and second with one out against lefty Andrew Miller. Asdrúbal Cabrera worked a full count before serving a 3-2 outside slider to right field. The ball had home run distance, but Fowler tracked it, leaped at the wall, and robbed Cabrera of a three-run home run.

Carlos Martínez relieved Miller, getting Victor Robles to ground out to end the inning. The Cardinals would go on to win 5-1.

The game had playoff implications on both sides. The win bumped the Cardinals’ hold on first place in the NL Central to 2.5 games while the Nationals’ lead over the Cubs and Brewers for the first NL Wild Card shrinks to just one game.

The Nationals will close out their final road trip of the regular season with three games against the Marlins before hosting the Phillies for five games and the Indians for three. The Cardinals, meanwhile, begin their final road trip of the regular season with four against the Cubs followed by three against the Diamondbacks before closing out the season at home with three games versus the Cubs.