More than 100 pitches in, Stephen Strasburg was adamant he wasn’t quite ready to leave the latest superb start by a Nationals pitcher against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series — a win that put Washington on the verge of the city’s first World Series in 86 years.
It was the seventh inning, and manager Dave Martinez noticed Strasburg had flexed his right leg and reached for that hamstring. So the skipper and a trainer went to the mound to check on their guy.
“I was trying to explain to him, ‘Hey, you just grabbed your hamstring, so there’s a little concern,’” Martinez recalled. “He said, ‘No, I cramped up. It’s fine. I always cramp up.’ He said, ‘I’m staying in the game. I want to finish this inning.’ I said, ‘You sure you’re all right?’ He said, ‘I’m in the game!’”
The right-hander did, indeed, stay in. Even struck out the next two batters to raise his total to 12 Ks, each finished with an off-speed pitch. Strasburg took his turn silencing the Cardinals’ struggling bats, Nationals postseason star Howie Kendrick doubled three times and drove in three more runs, and Washington took a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS by beating St. Louis 8-1 Monday night.
“It’s a little surreal,” reliever Sean Doolittle said about being one win from the World Series, “and I think that’s why it’s important that we don’t look too far ahead.”
After Nationals starters Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer flirted with no-hitters in the first two games against the Cardinals, Strasburg wasn’t quite that untouchable: He allowed a double in the second inning, six later singles and one unearned run.
Still, the Cardinals, quite simply, can’t score in this NLCS: They have a grand total of two runs and 11 hits through three games. Washington’s three starters have a combined ERA — no calculator necessary for this one — of 0.00.
Yes, that’s zero-point-zero-zero.
“We expected better,” said Kolten Wong, who went 0 for 4 on Monday and is 0 for 10 in the series for St. Louis.
Now it’s Patrick Corbin’s chance to see if he can match his rotation-mates. The $140 million lefty will start for the Nationals in Game 4 on Tuesday night, when they can close out a sweep at home. Rookie right-hander Dakota Hudson will be on the mound for the Cardinals.
“We’ve got to get a lead at some point in this series. Hard to win a game if you can’t get a lead,” St. Louis manager Mike Shildt said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to create some offense early in the game and be able to hold it there.”
Washington hasn’t put a baseball team in the World Series since 1933, when the Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games. The nation’s capital owns only one MLB championship; the Senators won all the way back in 1924. There wasn’t even a baseball team at all in Washington for more than three decades until the Montreal Expos franchise moved to town before the 2005 season and was renamed the Nationals.
Until this season, the Nationals hadn’t won a playoff series, going 0-4 since 2012, but they sure look as if they’re making up for lost time.
“Shoot, maybe we’re finally coming around,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said.
How about this current run? The Nationals, who found themselves at 19-31 in late May, have won 15 of their past 17 games, stretching back to the last week of the regular season.
It all starts with the pitching.
“That’s what our team is built around. You have those guys, those horses, that take the ball every fifth day,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who drove in two runs. “They haven’t disappointed, obviously, in the postseason, but they’ve kind of been the backbone of this team all year.”
Against Sánchez in Game 1, the first hit for the Cardinals arrived with their 27th batter. Against Scherzer in Game 2, it was their 21st batter. But even when the Cardinals did something right against Strasburg, they erased it by doing something wrong.
Their fourth batter, Marcell Ozuna, doubled to the left field corner in the second, then quickly erased himself with some poor baserunning, going too far toward third on a comebacker and getting tagged out by Strasburg, who is enjoying a postseason to remember.
He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, then was infamously shut down before the playoffs three years later to protect his surgically repaired right elbow. Strasburg is now hale and hearty, throwing 117 pitches Monday, his most since totaling 118 in a May 2017 game.
And this sort of October excellence is what the Nationals were hoping for: Strasburg has a 3-0 record and 1.64 ERA, with 33 strikeouts and one walk — he didn’t issue a free pass Monday — in 22 innings this postseason.
Much to the delight of a red towel-twirling crowd of 43,675, Washington’s batters kept delivering, led by Kendrick, who has eight RBIs in the past four games.
The Nationals roughed up Jack Flaherty for four runs, all in the third inning; he hadn’t allowed that many in a game since July 2, a span of 18 appearances.
Seven of Washington’s eight runs came with two outs, and there were contributions from up and down the lineup: Victor Robles homered in his return from a hamstring injury, and Rendon heard “MVP!” chants after a slick defensive play and an RBI double.
“We haven’t been able to play our brand of baseball in full,” Shildt said. “We haven’t been able to get in rhythm or sync, but we still have more baseball to play.”
Nationals: Robles, the Nationals’ center fielder, missed five postseason games with a strained right hamstring he hurt in Game 2 of the NLDS.
Corbin took the loss in each of Washington’s two defeats this postseason. One was a start — in Game 1 of the NLDS, when he allowed just one unearned run with nine strikeouts — and one came in relief. Corbin also came out of the bullpen to retire one Cardinals batter in Game 2 of the NLCS on Saturday.
In his only postseason start, in Game 4 of the Cardinals’ NLDS against Atlanta, Hudson allowed one earned run in 4 2/3 innings and did not factor in the decision as St. Louis won 5-4 in 10 innings.
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