After a season of magic, the Nats find themselves one National League Division Series loss away from disappearing. The defending World Series champion Cardinals claimed an 8-0 Game 3 decision on Wednesday behind Chris Carpenter and an aggressive, assertive offense that jumped on Edwin Jackson early in counts, early in the day.
Under different circumstances, Strasburg could have been on the mound, dealing with the heavy-handed Cards.
Or, if not engaging Carpenter, Strasburg could have been unleashing his high-90s heat and big breaker in St. Louis in Monday's Game 2. That 12-4 Cardinals romp at the expense of Jordan Zimmermann and the Nationals' bullpen evened the series heading back to the East Coast.
Of course, it's unfair to everyone involved to speculate. But that's what fans and media do. The organization made a decision -- an honorable if intensely debated one -- to protect an extraordinary young pitcher with a stressful delivery and a history of arm issues.
When he threw his final pitch on Sept. 7, Strasburg was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 28 games, striking out 197 in 159 1/3 innings. The Nats had the best record in the Majors.
They held it together nicely, preserving that best record in the game for the guarantee of home-field advantage throughout the postseason on the strength of the NL's All-Star Game victory in Kansas City.
Now they're looking at perhaps one more game before winter. Seasons, even those seemingly from the heavens, can come to screeching halts.
"We've been dealing with that kind of stuff all year," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said when asked about the missing artist in uniform No. 37. "I don't think we're at any disadvantage. We got here with what we've been doing, and we're going to stick with it. You've got to trust what you're doing."
Manager Davey Johnson had his team mentally and emotionally prepared for the Cardinals, but the man is as realistic as he is confident. He understood the threat St. Louis posed.
The Cards found their mojo with their Game 2 outburst, and now the Nats are in trouble, fans pondering the worst-case Strasburg scenario playing out precisely the way they'd feared.
But, the Nationals are quick to remind us, it's not over yet. They have a pulse, and they're home. But they have some rebounding to do, Dwight Howard style.
The Cardinals seized the upper hand with Carpenter outpitching Jackson, his former rotation mate, in Game 3. Now it's up to Ross Detwiler, a lefty with a power arm, to fend off Kyle Lohse on Thursday at 4 p.m. ET on TBS to force a Game 5 on Friday night.
"I like the way our pitching is set up the rest of the way."
-- Jayson Werth
That finale would match Washington ace Gio Gonzalez, the 21-game winner who fought his control in Game 1, against Adam Wainwright in a rematch.
"I believe in this team," Nats right fielder Jayson Werth said. "I like the way our pitching is set up the rest of the way."
Wainwright, like Carpenter, is one of the game's most proficient and respected big-game pitchers.
Gonzalez, for all the great things he did from April through September, doesn't have a backlog of postseason success to draw upon in the challenge of his career.
"We've been playing great baseball all year long," said Desmond, who is 7-for-12 (.583) in the series. "We had the best record in the Major Leagues for a reason. We don't have to remind ourselves. We lived it.
"We've played some sloppy games. It's just a matter of bouncing back. You play five games for a reason."
The Cardinals' pitching has been far superior to the Nationals' in this series. Even without Strasburg, it wasn't supposed to be that way.
"We've got a couple more battles we need to win," Johnson said, "and it comes from our pitching. Detwiler certainly has the stuff to pitch a good game. He's pitched some quality games this year."
Gonzalez issued seven walks in walking a Game 1 tightrope, and Zimmermann wasn't able to get past three innings in the Game 2 blowout. Jackson was down before seats were warm at Nationals Park on a gorgeous afternoon so full of promise.
With two away in the first, Matt Holliday's single and Allen Craig's double into the left-field corner gave Carpenter a lead.
After working free of a first-inning disturbance, Carpenter watched David Freese double and Daniel Descalso single in the second. With runners at the corners, Pete Kozma become the latest unheralded middle infielder to produce October thunder with a three-run blast.
Kozma took Jackson's first-pitch fastball into the left-field seats. Nice way to deflate a stadium and turn high anticipation into high anxiety.
You had to wonder how many fans at that moment turned to their companion and said, "Man, if only Stras had been out there."
Strasburg was in the dugout watching, dying to be out there. But he's a good teammate, and he was thinking about Jackson's distress, not his inactivity.
The way Carpenter was operating, using guile and plentiful resources to escape trouble, Strasburg would have been pitching for a scoreless tie if he had been on the mound.
Unless, that is, he'd come through with a hit in the second inning with Desmond in scoring position following one of his three hits. Jackson stranded Desmond with a popup.
Strasburg can hit. He batted .277 this season, with a homer and seven RBIs in 47 at-bats. With runners in scoring position, he was a .308 hitter.
No wonder you can't help but wonder.