WASHINGTON — The top of the first was frightening in its efficiency.
Stephen Strasburg needed just four minutes. That covered three pitches to strike out Dexter Fowler, one to coax an easy grounder from Kolten Wong, six to strike out Paul Goldschmidt. And that was all. Strasburg did not make this look easy so much as he made it feel inevitable. He did not touch his serious ammunition, his change-up; he didn’t need to. This basic frame required only the hustle of the heater and the geometry of the curve. That was sufficient to end it almost just as soon as it had started—painless, in a sense, if certainly not harmless. The rest of the game followed from there.
Strasburg, unlike his previous two rotation-mates in this NLCS, did not seriously threaten a no-hitter. (The Cardinals notched a hit in the second inning.) But he exhibited the same sort of dominance that had been so absolute for the Nationals in Games 1 and 2, and to the same result, an easy win for Game 3.
A decade after he’d been drafted, taken with the first overall pick as a shot at a savior, Strasburg did the unthinkable and the previously untested: He put the Washington Nationals one game away from the World Series.
What had been billed as a pitchers’ duel quickly unraveled into anything but. Jack Flaherty—not just the best pitcher of this year’s second half, but one of the best pitchers ever in any second half—allowed four runs in the third inning, the same number that he’d allowed across his final four starts in the regular season combined. That total was boosted by not only some lackluster defense, but also some bad fortune (the expected batting averages of the first three hits were, respectively, .220, .240, and .180), yet the result held all the same: Washington had jumped out ahead and would not retreat. The Nationals’ path to an 8–1 victory from there was, if not uneventful, then at least anticlimactic.
And it was, once more, driven by their rotation.
The Nationals’ starters have now gone 25.2 consecutive innings without an earned run. No National League team has been able to say that in the postseason in more than a century. (The Cardinals’ lone run on Monday was unearned, the result of a throwing error by Juan Soto, long after the game’s outcome looked clear.) But while it shouldn’t be remotely surprising that the team has leaned so much on its starters—“Back in May, we kind of knew that was going to be this case,” Strasburg said, which put it rather kindly, as their relievers had a 7.06 ERA at the end of May—it’s been true to such an extent that it’s striking, and, given the trends of recent Octobers, almost delightfully retro. The Nationals’ rotation makes up the power behind their current position. And they feed off of each other’s success so that they can build on it.
“They sit there, and they watch, and they talk, and they communicate, and they get together, and they’re going over what they’ve done that helped,” skipper Dave Martinez said after Game 3. “Then the next guy comes up.”
For Strasburg on Monday, that meant 12 strikeouts, no walks, and, as has been the case in every game so far this series for the Nationals, pitching deep into the game. The ‘pen’s use has been rather limited in the NLCS, but—perhaps precisely because of that—it’s been far more stable and successful than it was at any other point in the year. The Nationals, in other words, have neutralized their biggest weakness by maximizing their biggest asset. Game 3 was no different.
A mound visit from Martinez after Strasburg allowed a lead-off hit in the seventh was quickly resolved: I’m staying in the game, he said. I want to finish this inning.
“I said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to twist my arm,’” Martinez recalled afterward.
Strasburg maneuvered around a bit of trouble to strike out the final two batters of the frame with two men on, with the last one not only getting him out of the jam, but punctuating and summarizing his entire exultant outing. There was a curve (called strike), a fastball (foul), and finally, that deadly change-up (whiff). That was all that he needed.
This success is so fine-tuned as to be essentially clinical. (“It can get kind of boring when he’s striking everybody out,” noted third baseman Anthony Rendon.) And it’s taken the Nationals to a spot where they just have to execute the approach that they’ve had all season:
“Go 1–0 tomorrow,” Martinez said. “And we’ll see what happens then.”