With Stras out, Nats need lift from fellow starters
By Mike Bauman
The Washington Nationals are going to win the National League East with or without Stephen Strasburg. They entered Friday's game against the Phillies with an eight-game cushion, and the rest of their rotation has substantial talent.
But with the beginning of the NL Division Series now less than one month away, the issue of Strasburg's availability for the postseason remains open. And it would be in the postseason where he would be missed the most.
The Nats' talent level is not a debatable item. In 2012, they had the best record in the Majors (98-64). In '14, they had the best record in the NL (96-66).
What the Nationals don't have, yet, is a postseason series victory. It is more than slightly ironic that Strasburg missed the 2012 postseason because the Nats shut him down in early September as a precautionary move to protect him from a work overload in his first full season returning from Tommy John surgery.
As the season now stands, the Nationals, with the second-best record in the NL, would open the postseason at home against the team with the NL's third-best record, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers have their own ace, Clayton Kershaw, coming back from nearly 2 1/2 months on the disabled list with a herniated disk. Kershaw is scheduled to face Marlins ace Jose Fernandez on Friday night in Miami.
Even without Strasburg, Washington's rotation has serious assets. Max Scherzer is a true ace. But Tanner Roark (14-8, 2.89 ERA) doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Gio Gonzalez had a strong start to the season, fought a slump in late May and June, recovered midseason and experienced uneven results recently.
Let's say that, one way or another, the Nationals are able to defeat the Dodgers in the NLDS. After all, the Nats are due. That would, in all likelihood, set up a meeting with the Cubs in the NL Championship Series. It's a different world when you project the Cubs as the ultimate tough postseason draw, but that's clearly the way it looks at this moment.
How could the Cubs be beaten? The same way the Mets beat them four straight in the 2015 NLCS: Three straight dominant starts, one serviceable start and, presto, you're in the World Series.
The Nationals would seem to be capable of that sort of thing, if Strasburg would be available and pitching in top form. There have been cases of teams winning everything with two starting pitchers being essentially unbeatable. The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling come readily to mind, with the unbeatable pair combining for four wins in a Fall Classic victory over the Yankees.
For now, uncertainty temporarily rules the day, as far as Strasburg's status. What would be certain is that, without him, the Nationals will need reliable help from at least one other member of their pitching staff.
"We have to do the best for the situation with what we have and then make a determination on who is to take his place now, and possibly later," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Is it a better option to not have Stephen, or do we not count Stephen out?