|Davey Johnson's Nats overcame setbacks in the regular season. He needs more of the same now. (US Presswire)|
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nobody deals with loss like the St. Louis Cardinals. While there is much consternation in the Capital over idled Nationals star Stephen Strasburg, the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, playing without Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal (not to mention Albert Pujols), spoiled the first D.C. playoff game in 79 years with an overwhelming performance that brought them to the cusp of the NLCS.
Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter, who's getting to be an October staple, returned just in time following a near season-long absence and outdueled a struggling-from-the-start Edwin Jackson, who is no Strasburg. Very early in the Cardinals' 8-0 victory that put them up 2-1 in the Division Series, there was a Natitude issue, at least in the crowd, as Nats fans who waited patiently for postseason baseball began booing within the first couple of innings.
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You have to wonder what's going on in the clubhouse, too. There's been a stray quote or two from unnamed quarters out of the Nats' clubhouse about how they'd be doing better with Strasburg on their roster. The self-imposed benching of Strasburg is a loss, no question about that. But this is no time for excuse making. And check out the Cardinals' attitude.
Another point: Even with Strasburg in the postseason rotation, Jackson and Jordan Zimmermann (who got rocked in Game 2) still would have started games in this series. All the Nationals would just be better off if they simply forgot Strasburg and played the way they did when they won 98 games in the regular season.
That's the way the Nats have to view things. They can't be wasting their time and mind space thinking about Strasburg, nor certainly should they be whispering about the shackles on Strasburg. The Nats knew for the whole year he wasn't going to be part of the playoff roster, and they are one of only a few teams that have the talent to overcome his absence. The question now becomes: Do they have the fortitude to go along with the #Natitude?
"It's a test," said National closer Drew Storen, who has the right perspective. "If we're going to do it, we have to do it. We've dealt with adversity all year. We can't fold up the tent because they've played two games really good."
If it's a test, the Nats are going up against the best test-takers around in the Cardinals, who won the World Series in 2006 and 2011 when they were least expected to win it all. And if no one sees them as a threat again, they aren't paying attention.
That's the Cardinals way. The Cardinals don't discuss the absence of injured veterans Berkman and Furcal, and even the Pujols talk is down to a whisper now in the country's best baseball city. Last October, they played without ace pitcher Adam Wainwright and still won the World Series.
Sure, the Strasburg Shutdown is somewhat different in that it's a team decision to idle him. But the reality is that it doesn't matter. And the truth is, the Nats played through all sorts of injuries early, when they lost two closers, four catchers, and for a time, stars Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, and they still managed to win 98 games. Which was more than anyone else.
The Nats found the right replacements. Although, no one compares to the Cardinals at filling in the blanks. Furcal's shortstop replacement, the widely-unheralded Pete Kozma, continued his surprise heroics with a three-run, second-inning home run off Jackson into the leftfield stands that all but smothered the enthusiasm Nats fans felt early.
The Cardinals keep on coming, and they never complain.
Carpenter, who started only three games after returning from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome but worked his way back for just such an occasion, is said by people around the team to actually feel better now than he did last year when he won Game 7 of the World Series for the Cardinals. He retains his ability to get outs when needed, as the Nationals failed to record one hit all game with runners in scoring position.
More than one person suggested this is like a spring training for Carpenter in that he isn't exactly in game shape. But his arm feels no pain. And his attitude (no "N") and mindset are unshakeable.
"If the baseball world doesn't know what kind of competitor Chris Carpenter is, they haven't been paying attention," the Cardinals' Matt Holliday said. "When I'm done, I'll get to say I was a teammate of Chris Carpenter. And I'll be proud of that."
It's almost like the two teams have traveled opposite paths. The Nationals had Strasburg for the bulk of the regular season, but he's watching now, thanks to the club's decision to protect his arm in the year after Tommy John surgery. Carpenter's year looks like a mirror image.
About the same time Strasburg put down a baseball, Carpenter picked one up. While he didn't win either of his three regular-season starts, they were just tune-ups for his real action, which comes now. He retired all seven Nats who came up against him with runners in scoring position.
"He didn't have his best stuff, but he knows how to pitch," said Werth, forming the words that could comprise Carpenter's epitaph.
The Cardinals know how to win. And they are smart, too. Carlos Beltran, who has a career slugging percentage above .800 in the postseason, was the needed addition to a team that's dealing with life without Pujols (who's doing OK with his $240 million in Los Angeles/Anaheim), and at least for the moment, Berkman as well.
The Cardinals have scored 20 runs in the last two games. Jackson heard it from the crowd by the second inning. Nationals manager Davey Johnson chalked up Jackson's performance to making "bad pitches."
And remember again, Zimmermann and Jackson are bona fide members of the Nats rotation, not simply Strasburg fill-ins. That guy comes Thursday when youngster Ross Detwiler takes the mound to oppose Kyle Lohse, who's been the Cardinals ace all year and isn't all that far from being 23-0 (he's 17-3 counting the wild-card win, and the 'pen blew six leads for him and his three defeats came by one run).
For Game 5, the Nats would turn to the biggest winner in the National league, Gio Gonzalez if they can get there. It's a considerable question after being outscored 20-4 the last two games. Detwiler may be the best No. 5 starter in baseball, but he is the one who would have been passed over had the Nats employed Strasburg in the series.
"If we get past tomorrow," Werth said, hopefully, "we got our ace going in Game 5."
Not the normal ace (that would be Strasburg), but the playoff ace, anyway.