The series is set to be defined — and perhaps even decided — by an ace who won't throw a single pitch at any point during it. Washington righty Stephen Strasburg will not be active for the best-of-five National League division series against the Cardinals as the Nationals adhere to their season-long plan to sideline their dynamo after about 160 innings of work. Still, expect plenty of Strasburg cutaways during broadcast coverage because his absence will loom large simply because of the presence he could bring. The former first-round pick won 15 games and posted a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts in his first full season back from elbow reconstruction. He reached 159 1/3 innings on Sept. 7 and has only played catch since. The Nats were 19-9 in his games. They're 13-11 since he was mothballed.
Washington's pitching staff led the National League with a 3.33 ERA in 2012, and the rotation was second overall with a 3.40 ERA. Much of that came from Gio Gonzalez, Sunday's Game 1 starter. The lefty led the NL with 21 wins and was the bedrock of the staff by making every scheduled start. He'll lead a rotation against a team that he alone had success against. Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Missouri State product Ross Detwiler will follow him in games 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Combined, that trio went 1-2 with a 9.28 ERA in five starts (21 2/3 innings) against the Cardinals.
Strasburg pitched six shutout innings against the Cardinals in his one and only start against them. While overall subtracting his totals from the greater whole does little to the ERA — it inches up to 3.35 without Strasburg's start — it's in a short series where not having him will be more acute. He'll sit, while the Cardinals pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, Adam Wainwright, could pitch twice.
X-FACTOR: EDWIN JACKSON
Nats manager Davey Johnson hinted Saturday that he might have gone with a different rotation had Atlanta won Friday's wild-card playoff, but in the end he probably was going to side with Jackson getting a start, and early. "I kind of like the experience that Edwin Jackson brings," Johnson said. That postseason experience came mostly with the Cardinals last year. It's Jackson's experience against the Cardinals that could pivot the series. The righty went 1-1 in three starts during the Cardinals' World Series run a year ago, and they won three of his four starts.
Jackson had wildly divergent starts against the Cardinals this season. In Washington, where he'll start Game 3, he struck out 10 Cardinals and held them without an earned run in eight innings. In his return to Busch, the Cardinals clobbered him for nine runs before he could get a fifth out. The latter Jackson could tilt the series to the Nats. The former could hand it to the Cardinals.
Three teams in the National League had as many as four players with at least 20 homers this season: Milwaukee, which led the league in homers; the Cardinals, who had five regulars eclipse 20; and the Nationals, whose bopper offense featured young and older, infielder and outfielder and was the great equalizer for an otherwise average offense.
The Nats hit 194 home runs to rank second in the NL. They got 33 from 32-year-old Adam LaRoche and 22 from 19-year-old Bryce Harper. Center fielder Harper hit many of those from the No. 2 spot, while shortstop Ian Desmond hit more than half of his 23 from the sixth spot in the order. The fourth member of the 20-club was Ryan Zimmerman, meaning Mike Morse didn't crack the group after hitting 31 homers in 2011. Morse has surged lately with six homers and a .510 slugging percentage in the season's final month to hint at how the Nats could yet outmuscle opponents in the playoffs. Harper hit two of his homers against the Cardinals and strafed them for a .429 average (12 for 28) and .750 slugging in seven games. "They have the same sort of lineup," Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said. "You go out there and you don't make your pitches, they can put a crooked number up on you quick. ... Those guys can do damage from all spots."
With Drew Storen recovering from elbow surgery, Tyler Clippard, one of the game's best setup men in 2011, took over as closer for most of 2012 and now gives the Nats a double-barreled answer for the ninth. Storen, who has four saves since returning to the roster, went 43 for 48 on save conversions in 2011, and combined the two are 79 for 90 in the closing role the past two seasons. Clippard waned late in the season but could benefit from rest and Storen taking over — for the most part. It also frees Johnson to use Clippard to defuse any situation before the ninth. "I really don't like to say who is my closer because sometimes matchups may favor one or the other," Johnson said. "But it's going to be business as usual."
For matchups the Nats have lefties Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett, who walked one lefthanded batter and struck out 28 in 95 plate appearances. The Nats kept rookie righty Christian Garcia, who had 12 strikeouts in 28 attempts against righthanded batters in September.
The Cardinals, a post-seasoned bunch led by a rookie manager, contrast with their reverse reflection on the other side: a green bunch of players with only three carrying playoff experience managed by Johnson, a sage who is in the postseason for the sixth time. Johnson is regarded as a nimble in-game manager, mostly because he's aggressive, not reactive. A reason starter Gonzalez has such a limited average innings per start is Johnson's eager use of the bullpen, and in the Nats he has found a roster agile enough to meet his aggression. The Nats can draw from his experience even as he utilizes their exuberance. "This team is always relaxed," he said, "when it's together."