WASHINGTON -- Once Stephen Strasburg left the mound in obvious discomfort on Sept. 7 at Nationals Park, with what was diagnosed as a strained flexor mass, it left a huge void in the Nationals' rotation, which has been perhaps the team's biggest strength all season.
Strasburg will not pitch in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, which begins Friday (FS1, 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 PT), and manager Dusty Baker said it would be a "pleasant surprise" if the right-hander pitches at all during the postseason. And Washington seems hesitant to use Max Scherzer on short rest, meaning it will likely need four starters to get through the first round of the playoffs.
That increases the importance of left-hander Gio Gonzalez and right-hander Joe Ross, two pitchers with question marks, but the Nationals will be counting on them to help advance deep into the playoffs.
"The other guys got to do their job," Baker said in response to a question about Scherzer going on short rest. "I can't stress that enough. You can beat one horse to death and then what? You're still stuck with the other horses. You've got to spread the workload around and everybody's got to earn their keep, and everybody's got to earn their money."
Although, the Nationals have yet to officially announce their rotation for the postseason, Gonzalez seems likely to be the No. 3 starter, especially after general manager Mike Rizzo told a D.C. radio station earlier this week that Gonzalez was "probably the most capable Game 3 starter."
Gonzalez posted a 4.57 ERA in 32 starts, the eighth-worst ERA for any qualified pitcher in the NL. During the past two months, Gonzalez averaged about five innings per start with a 5.17 ERA. His last three starts to close the regular season have been even less inspiring, with Gonzalez surrendering 12 runs in 13 innings, although he has 16 strikeouts and six walks during that span.
There have been some positives in his performance: Gonzalez posted a 1.42 ERA in the month of April, his 3.76 FIP for the season indicates that he has been a little better than his ERA, and he has issued the fewest walks per nine innings in his career.
"You start the postseason with a zero ERA, that's how I look at it," Gonzalez said. "It's a new series."
Then, there is the Nationals' opponent in the NLDS. The Dodgers have struggled against left-handed pitchers this season. In fact, Los Angeles is the worst team in the Majors against lefties -- hitting .217 with a .294 on-base percentage, .339 slugging percentage and a .633 OPS (all last in the Majors). Three key hitters -- Chase Utley, Corey Seager and Adrian Gonzalez -- are left-handed.
For all of Gonzalez's struggles this season, he has been better against lefties, holding them to a .633 OPS compared to .756 against righties.
Meanwhile, Ross has looked sharp since returning from the disabled list after missing two months with right shoulder inflammation. In three starts, he has 14 strikeouts and three walks, while he has allowed three runs. The Nationals are hoping they will get the pitcher from the first half of the season who had established himself as one of the best young starters in the Majors and posted a 3.43 ERA this year.
But they did not have the luxury of building Ross' pitch count up entirely in the Minors, so he has been trying to do so all month. Even though he has looked sharp since returning, he has not thrown a pitch past the fourth inning since July. Baker brought up the idea of potentially using Ross out of the bullpen in the playoffs, but that seems unlikely unless they would decide to bring Scherzer back on short rest.
"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."
Either way, the Nationals need either Gonzalez or Ross to be effective, not only to get past the NLDS, but if they want to ultimately achieve their goal of winning the World Series.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.