NLCS Takeaways: Strasburg takes Nationals to brink of spot in World Series


Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the second inning of Game 3 of the baseball National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Washington Nationals used to be defined by Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and perpetual playoff disappointment. Now, Harper is an afterthought and Strasburg is part of a Nats starting staff that has the team one victory away from the World Series.

In the first National League Championship Series home game in Nationals (but not Montreal Expos) history, Strasburg tossed a seven-inning gem, helping his club take a 3-0 stranglehold on the St. Louis Cardinals with an 8-1 win on Monday. The 31-year-old was merely picking up where his fellow starters left off in St. Louis after Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer both pitched into the seventh inning before surrendering a hit in Games 1 and 2.

Strasburg fanned 12 in Game 3 while tossing 117 pitches, the most he’s thrown in 2019. His off-speed stuff was particularly devastating, as he used a deadly changeup and curve to punch out Cardinal after off-kilter Cardinal.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

For much of this decade, Nationals fans were waiting for Strasburg — the first overall pick in the 2009 draft — to team up with Harper, the top selection in 2010, and take the team all the way. Instead, it was constant sorrow, beginning with the fact Strasburg was shut down as a precautionary measure in 2012 and didn’t toss a pitch in the Nats’ first post-season appearance since moving to D.C. in 2005. Washington failed to make it past the division series that year and the National League Division Series proved to be the hard cap again in three subsequent Octobers.

But eight months after Harper signed a monster deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, the guy he was once co-face of the franchise with is experiencing his best days as a National. Of course, that’s basically true for everyone on the team right now.

Howie You Doin?

Howie Kendrick was never going to have to buy a drink again in Washington after his series-deciding grand slam in Game 5 of the National League Division Series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kendrick, however, is thirsty for more. The 36-year-old second baseman drove the Nats’ offence in Game 3, smacking a double in the third inning that made the score 4-0. When he knocked another run-scoring, two-bagger in the fifth — his third double of the series — to make it 5-0, it basically put the game out of reach given the way Strasburg was dealing. Kendrick finished the night with three hits and two runs scored.

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Two Dangerous

No National League team drove in more runs with two outs than Washington in the regular season and they’ve continued that clutch trend in the playoffs. Both of Kendrick’s RBI doubles came with two down, as the Nationals drove in their first six runs with two-out hits. The way this team is coming through in that position has only served to grow the feeling there’s something special going on in D.C. this fall. Also helping with that team-of-destiny vibe is the way the bottom of the order is making a contribution. To that end, three different No. 8 hitters have had a big impact in this series. First, it was catcher Yan Gomes’s two hits, including (what else?) a two-out, RBI double in Game 1. The next night saw centre fielder Michael Taylor take Adam Wainwright deep for a solo blast. And in Game 3, it was centre fielder Victor Robles delivering a pair of hits from the eight-hole, including a long ball of his own.

Red Faced

Jack Flaherty had to know exactly what his team required from him when he ascended the bump for Game 3. Taking the ball one day before his 24th birthday, the St. Louis ace needed to match Strasburg pitch for pitch and give his struggling offence a chance to get off the mat. And while he looked strong through two innings, Flaherty couldn’t keep it going in the third. That said, his defence let him down when left fielder Marcell Ozuna failed to haul in a catchable flare off the bat of Anthony Rendon, a miscue that allowed Adam Eaton to cross home plate.

Anything less than sparkling pitching and defence isn’t going to get it done for the Cardinals right now, because the team just can’t find its collective swing. St. Louis has only two runs in the entire series and didn’t score in Game 3 until the top of the seventh, when Washington had already built a 7-0 advantage.

The Cards, cold bats in hand, are now trying to become the first National League team ever to climb out of an 0-3 series hole. Assuming they can’t, Washington will soon host its first World Series game since 1933.

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