The biggest game in Washington Nationals history was nowhere close to that magnitude for starter Edwin Jackson, who entered Wednesday having pitched in a pair of World Series in prior years. Game 3 of the National League Division Series, by definition, isn’t comparable to what’s at stake in the postseason’s latter stages.
The Nats’ last chance to move on wasn’t in Jackson’s right hand when he started Washington’s first home MLB playoff game since 1933. The final weight ultimately would come to rest on Game 4 starter Ross Detwiler and (if necessary) Game 5 starter Gio Gonzalez.
Jackson was supposed to span the gap.
While the bridge didn’t experience a total collapse, there was significant crumbling at the beginning.
Instead of crossing over to the brink of the NLCS, Washington was left on the verge of extinction as St. Louis got to Jackson early in an 8-0 loss. All of his postseason experience went for naught as the Cards tagged him for four runs on six hits through two innings. He settled down after that, but it was too late.
The performance wasn’t quite as bad as his Sept. 28 outing in St. Louis, when the Cardinals scored eight earned runs in his four outs — yes, outs — of work. Nats fans tried to repress images of that nightmarish showing as they geared up for Game 3, hoping to see the Jackson who held St. Louis to one run over eight innings Aug. 30.
That guy never showed up Wednesday. “Most of the time my problem is being behind in the count,” Jackson said of the games (not infrequent) in which he struggles early.” This time, it was leaving the ball in the middle of the plate. Sometimes it just runs like that. I felt like I was coming out throwing strikes, but I was just missing in the middle of the plate.”
Four-run deficits aren’t insurmountable, but the margin might as well have been 40. The way Washington’s batters nibbled on St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter, you’d think there was a one-hit-per-inning limit. The Nats ended with seven on the day, notching the bare minimum in each of the first five innings.
In that sense, Jackson kept his team in the game, throwing three scoreless innings before the bullpen took over. But Game 3 marked the third consecutive contest in which the Nats’ starter was particularly ineffective from the outset. The series’ composite score at the end of the second inning is St. Louis 10, Washington 2.
“Edwin could’ve easily said, ‘I don’t have it today,’” said Nats closer Drew Storen. “But he grinded it out and battled. We’ve all been there. We all were starting pitchers once.”
Gonzalez, who tightroped his way around seven walks through five innings in Game 1, is also known for scuffling through early innings at times before finding his form. He knows what Jackson was feeling after Washington trailed once again before one complete trip through the batting order.
“Your whole mindset is to keep your team from getting blown out of the water,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what Edwin did. I think he did a great job.”
That’s not how we’ll remember it. We’ll recall the largest crowd in the history of Nationals Park being silenced for most of the afternoon once the Cardinals jumped ahead. Besides, Jackson’s ERA for the game was 7.20, and there’s nothing great about that no matter how you cut it.
(But, please, spare me any talk about what a certain pitcher would have done if he hadn’t been shut down in September. The Cards could’ve lit him up this series as easily as they torched Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2. The fact is nobody knows for certain what would’ve happened if whatshisname was in the rotation. But unprovable bar arguments are the easiest to engage in, so I suppose that debate will remain with us into perpetuity.)
Manager Davey Johnson was blunt about Jackson’s troubles. “He just made bad pitches,” Johnson said. “I thought he got a little sharper as the game went on, but a couple of really bad pitches, that’s the story.”
Especially the first-pitch fatty shortstop Pete Kozma drove into the left field stands for a three-run homer. The performance could be our lasting impression of Jackson, a free agent after the season, who’s unlikely to appear in a Nats uniform again.
“It could be, it could not be,” he said. “That’s definitely not the way I wanted to end it.”