- - Thursday, October 5, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The last time Stephen Strasburg pitched in the postseason — Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants in 2014 — here is what his manager, Matt Williams, had to say about his performance.

“I think Stras was good,” Williams said. “He gave us a chance. I think Jake (Peavy) was better. Jake was really good today. I think Stras pitched fine.”

It was such a damning quote that in the post-game transcript provided by Major League Baseball’s service, it was not included.

“Fine” isn’t good enough when you are the ace and you are facing 38-year-old Jake Peavy in Game 1 of a five-game division series at home. You simply can’t get outpitched in that situation — eight hits, one walk, one earned run in just five innings pitched, compared to Peavy’s 5 2/3 shutout innings — even if it is by the slimmest of margins.

You can’t be just “fine.” You have to be the one your manager describes as “really good.”

Since then, Strasburg has had to live with that one game. Two years earlier, he’d missed the division series against St. Louis because the Nationals shut him down to protect his arm. He had to watch again last year, sidelined with elbow soreness, in the first-round loss to Los Angeles.

Now he gets another chance Friday night in Game 1 against the Chicago Cubs as half of the dynamic duo of Strasburg and Max Scherzer the Nationals hope will carry them to the World Series.

Ever since this run of Nationals winning baseball began in 2012, this team’s identity has been starting pitching. It is the safety net that they can count on when things go wrong — when the bats go silent, as happens often in postseason play.

“Runs are scarce,” Nationals team president and general manager Mike Rizzo told me on my podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” (available here on the Washington Times website). “During the long haul of a 162-game season, you run across teams that are less talented than you, you run across a lot of third, fourth and fifth starters that you can do a lot of damage on.

“In the playoffs that all changes,” Rizzo said. “Now every pitcher you are facing is a one or two starter. Runs are hard to come by. Not very often do you have big offensive outputs in the playoffs. You are facing number ones and twos almost every nights.

“That is why pitching is key,” he said. :”That is what I said when I started building this thing in 2009 and 2010. When you have real starting pitching, anything is possible, and until you have a real rotation, nothing is possible. We’re always on the lookout for pitching.

“People thought we had a great rotation and we traded for Doug Fister,” he said. “People thought we had a great rotation and we signed Max Scherzer. People thought we had a great rotation and we tried hard this off season to get (Chris) Sale.

“Starters win you championships.”

Imagine that for a moment — Chris Sale in this rotation. All that stood in the way of that trade happening was Trea Turner.

Still, Strasburg and Scherzer should be the one-two duo that can carry the Nationals through the playoffs, whether the Nationals’ hitters are hitting or not — providing Scherzer, nursing a hamstring injury, is healthy enough to pitch. The word is that Scherzer may be pushed back to Game 3 in Chicago.

If so, it may complicate the formula for success, but it doesn’t change it. In a five-game series, the other team has to face a pitcher named Strasburg or Scherzer three times. You expect to win those starts. But Scherzer’s health complicates the formula.

Rizzo has seen it before — a dominant one-two postseason pitching duo. He was scouting director with the 2001 World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks, and noted the similarities between that Arizona duo of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson and Strasburg and Scherzer.

“That was a hell of a team we had in 2001, but it was headlined by those two horses,” Rizzo said. “Randy and Curt had a friendly competition who was going to pitch better. I think Stras and Sherzer have that as well, one guy goes out to pitch a great game, and the other guy wants to go out and pitch better. It’s good to have two guys who are that talented and elite.”

That duo of Schilling and Johnson combined for 9-1 record in that 2001 championship run, allowing just 13 runs in 90 innings pitched. That’s talented and elite.

Stephen Strasburg is talented. And he’s been elite down the stretch this season — a record of 6-1 with an 0.86 ERA since the All-Star break.

But now, like Rizzo said, everything changes in the postseason. It’s a different level of “elite”—and “fine” just won’t do.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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