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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 4, Mariners 3: A pair of first inning two-run homers — from Aaron Judge and Miguel Andujar — were all the Yankees needed, even with a less-sharp-than-usual Luis Severino.

In other news, reporters asked Aaron Boone after the game yesterday if the Yankees are too reliant on homers. Boone was, quite understandably, incredulous that someone was asking him that.

Can someone please tell me why people who cover the Yankees, nearly every single year, go through a “are the Yankees too reliant on home runs?” phase? Seriously, go search “Yankees” and some variation of “home run-reliant” or “home run-dependent” or whatever. It’s an evergreen. Hell, they did it TEN DAYS AGO. As if hitting homers is bad. I mean, I know I’m not a seasoned beat reporter and don’t know nothin, but I’m pretty sure homers are awesome and are literally the best thing you can do when you’re batting.

John: “I hit a double.”
Charlie: “I hit a homer.”

CHARLIE WINS

My god, if you can’t think of an angle, at least stop going back to the tired and dumb ones you take every year. Or, at the very least, if you’re going to continue to worry about the Yankees being too reliant on homers, acknowledge that the Yankees HIT A METRIC BUTT-TON of homers, they’re hit by guys who are expected to hit a lot of homers so it’s not a fluke and it’s all good.

But, hey, congratulations on getting a quote out of Boone. Your copy is complete and turned in and you can go home now.

Red Sox 9, Twins 2: Rick Porcello tossed one-hit shutout ball for seven innings. No one asked him if he’s too “getting guys out”-reliant. Missed opportunity, really. Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi went deep and the Sox racked up 16 hits in all.

Rockies 6, Mets 4: Nolan Arenado hit a three-run jack early — his third homer in as many days — and knocked in five runs in all. Dude drove in nine runs against the Mets over the past three games, in fact, so I imagine New York is happy to be leaving town. Kyle Freeland went six innings, allowing two, and got out of jams with double plays on three occasions.

Nationals 4, Orioles 2: Max Scherzer allowed two over seven and struck out nine but didn’t get the win because his mates decided not to take a lead until the eighth inning. It happens. That lead came via a two-run double from Juan Soto, who is now batting .326 with 16 RBI in 28 games, despite the fact that I literally — yes, literally — have t-shirts in my regular rotation that are older than he is. Anthony Rendon homered.

Diamondbacks 9, Pirates 3: Arizona jumped out with eight runs before the third inning was even over, giving license to my friends in Pittsburgh for the SABR convention this weekend to leave early and go raise hell. And believe me, you do NOT want to get in the way of a bunch of baseball historians when they’ve had a few drinks and have time on their hands. You’ll just be walking down the street and then all of a sudden you’re cornered by some guys in dad jeans lecturing you about Hank Greenberg’s season with the 1932 Beaumont Explorers of the Texas League and asking you if there’s a good place to find some beer nearby, but “nothing too hoppy because, man, my system just can’t take that since I hit 50.”

Reds 6, Cubs 2: Cincinnati enjoyed a six-run sixth inning, thanks to a bases-loaded walk drawn by Eugenio Suarez, a grand slam by Jesse Winker and an RBI single from Billy Hamilton. In other news, yesterday on Twitter there was a lot of discussion about how MLB could do a better job of marketing players. My friend Jeff, who works in P.R. and used to work for Major League Baseball, said a lot of very smart things about that, explaining why it’s not so simple as to say “MLB should market its stars better.” One of the minor points in that is that ballplayers, by virtue of the culture of the game, are conditioned to not draw attention to themselves and to downplay their stardom lest someone think they’re a hot dog or a glory hound or whatever. I’m not going to suggest that Jesse Winker is a budding superstar which MLB should be marketing hard, but his quote after the game illustrates the point:

“Guys put together great at-bats in front of me. Obviously, you can’t hit a grand slam unless guys get on base.”

There’s a certain admirable humility to that. It’s also nothing that’s gonna sell t-shirts, posters or make 12-year-olds say “WOW, WINKER IS THE MAN!”

Brewers 11, Cardinals 3: Brent Suter allowed two over seven and the Cardinals threw and bobbled the ball all over the place, allowing the Brewers to score six unearned runs. Eric Thames drove in three and Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar knocked in a couple a piece.

Angels 8, Blue Jays 5: Luis Valbuena homered twice and Kole Calhoun connected for the second consecutive game. The Jays have lost nine of ten on the road. Also, this happened:

That was the first tweet I saw when I woke up this morning and I’m still chuckling. It’s John Lamb, by the way. I hope he has a good sense of humor about this.

Giants 3, Padres 0: Madison Bumgarner is back. I mean, he’s been back, but now he’s BACK. The Giants’ ace tossed eight shutout innings, allowing only three hits and struck out eight. He also knocked in the Giants’ first and, as it happens, only necessary run, with a sac fly. Giants fans can finally relax, knowing that, in some ways at least, the old order has been restored.

Athletics vs. White Sox — POSTPONED:

Hmmm
Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.
My girl has found another and gone away.
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom.
So day after day, I stayed locked up in my room.
I know to you it might sound strange.
But I wish it would rain. (How I wish that it would rain)
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah