WASHINGTON -- The governor is off now, no longer are the Nationals dealing with nip-and-tuck, cross-your-fingers baseball. They have turned into the heavy.
A gleeful Monday evening at Nationals Park finished with a 3-0 National League Championship Series lead. The first NLCS home game in team history accelerated from tight to comfortable while Stephen Strasburg cruised along. The crux of the series has become clear in the simplest of terms: St. Louis can’t hit what the Washington starters are throwing. Patrick Corbin will try to end it Tuesday night. If he does, the once 19-31 Nationals will start the World Series Oct. 22 in either Houston or New York.
Monday’s 8-1 pummeling of St. Louis provides Washington with daunting leverage. Teams leading the best-of-seven NLCS 3-0 have won the series 100 percent of time. The Nationals exist as a massive favorite to advance and likely to do so at home. Opposing Corbin on Tuesday is Dakota Hudson, a 24-year-old who led the league in walks and lasted just 4 ⅔ innings against Atlanta in the NLDS.
“There’s been wild-card teams that roll through, but there’s also been teams that get those three or four days off and they roll as well,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “What it comes down to is, you’ve got to play good baseball. We’ve lost some games when we didn’t play bad baseball. You’ve got to get some lucky bounces along the way. We’ve gotten a couple of those so far.
“But we’ve done nothing yet. I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate. Obviously there’s things to be proud of. But I think what we’ve done all year is just concentrate on the game that day. We had to start doing that in June. It was either that or basically start making offseason plans. SO we had to embrace that mindset early on, and we’ve just kept it rolling.”
Again pulling the weight was a Nationals starting pitcher. Strasburg managed a strange seventh-inning situation to finish with just one unearned run allowed. Washington starters have allowed zero earned runs in 21 ⅔ innings this series. Little is left to be said about their dominance of a middling St. Louis lineup rendered fully inept.
The bottom of the third inning was part anomaly, part predictable. St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty moved through the first two innings with little to shudder about. Victor Robles, back in the lineup for the first time in 10 days, began the third with a single. Strasburg bunted him to second. Adam Eaton singled with two outs to drive in Robles. Anthony Rendon’s rapidly sinking fly ball to left rattled out of Marcell Ozuna’s glove while he slid. Eaton scored. Juan Soto walked. Howie Kendrick arrived at a 2-1 count versus the teetering Flaherty. His double into the gap scored two more, promoting him to shark clap toward the dugout and high-on-life Gerardo Parra to grab and tap a mini stuffed shark hanging from the mesh in front of the dugout.
The stuffed shark survived for a return to the clubhouse. Parra held it up like a pitch man would his prized product during a quick interview with the MLB Network. When done, he tossed it to his father who was sitting in a folding chair in front of Parra’s locker. The shark-chomp motion has become so ubiquitous around the Nationals, even principal owner Mark Lerner clicked his index finger and thumb together in the clubhouse.
Flaherty had not allowed four or more runs in an inning since June 25; 20 starts ago. He allowed four earned runs total in six September starts. Flaherty threw one more inning Monday before giving way to the bullpen. He lasted four innings, a deflating evening for the Cardinals’ top pitcher in a game they had to win.
Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman delivered back-to-back doubles in the fifth to bump the lead to 6-0. Robles homered in the sixth to go up 7-0. Zimmerman's single drove Kendrick across the plate in the eighth. In the meantime, Strasburg racked up strikeouts with changeups and curveballs before a splash of trouble in the seventh.
Back-to-back singles started the inning. Paul DeJong’s single to left field seemed harmless enough until Juan Soto lost his feet when loading to throw. Soto ended up on his backside, the ball eventually coming into the infield to no one in particular. A run scored. Davey Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard approached the mound before Strasburg shooed them away with a death stare and handful of words.
Strasburg closed the inning with back-to-back strikeouts -- his 11th and 12th of the evening -- to further suppress the Cardinals lineup. How bad has it been for St. Louis through three games? A starter who finished with seven hits allowed and an unearned run across seven innings is the laggard.
“That’s what our team is built around,” Zimmerman said. “Those guys, those horses that take the ball every fifth day, they haven’t disappointed in the postseason. They’ve been the backbone of this team all year. We’ve asked them to do some pretty … I don’t even know how to explain it … some things they don’t really do with pitchers anymore. And every time we’ve asked them, they’ve grabbed the ball, gone out there and done it. Those guys are unbelievable. Hopefully we can keep riding them.”
Four opportunities to crack the World Series now exist. Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon -- if necessary -- at home, then two during the weekend back in St. Louis, if it somehow comes to that. Monday’s luxury ride put them in position. Tuesday’s nine innings could send them over the hump.
“The [motto] we’ve used a lot is go 1-0 today,” Sean Doolittle said. “And I think that’s more important than ever [Tuesday]. Bringing the same energy to the ballpark, not taking anything fro granted, keeping our heads down. We’re all aware of where we’re at.”
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