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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Nationals put to the test

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- They came streaming out of the Metro station, streaming out of the parking lots, their bright red Nationals get-ups gleaming in the afternoon sun.

So this was it. This was what it looked like. This was what it felt like to have a postseason baseball game dropped into the middle of their town, for the first time since the late, great Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

It should have been a beautiful way for the ever-patient residents of Washington, D.C., to pass a spectacular Wednesday afternoon in October. Except, unfortunately, then Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals showed up.

So the winningest team in baseball -- that would be the Nationals -- spent the next three and a half hours getting whomped 8-0 by the last team to get a bid to this tournament. That would be that world-famous No. 2 wild-card entry, the Cardinals.

And as all those dejected Washingtonians trudged sadly back to their cars and their Metro stops, they'd learned an important lesson about October baseball:

Careful what you wish for.

There is more to October, you see, than champagne and ticker tape. There is also heartbreak. And mystery. And matchups that often turn out to be much more challenging than the regular-season won-lost records might make them appear.

So now it is the team that won 98 games that finds itself trailing two games to one in a division series in which a third loss sends you home. With very little experience to draw on at a time like this. With a 26-year-old starting pitcher with 16 career wins (Ross Detwiler) lined up to try to save the season. With the dreaded Stephen Strasburg what-if questions starting to hover.

Bryce Harper
Nationals rookie Bryce Harper is 1-for-15 with six strikeouts in the series.

It's the kind of predicament that serves as a test -- for all teams that find themselves still playing at this time of year. It's a test that enables them to find out how good they really are and how tough they really are. And maybe, you could make a case that a team such as Washington, which has never been here or done this, needs these sorts of tests.

Or, then again, maybe not.

"I don't know if you ever need to do that," one of the Nationals' elder statesmen, Jayson Werth, said late Wednesday afternoon in a locker room that was as quiet as it was empty. "But I know we're going to be put to that test tomorrow."

On Thursday, they have to beat Kyle Lohse, coming off a 16-3 season and a win over Atlanta in Friday's Wild Card Sudden Death Extravaganza. And if they survive to play a Game 5, it'll be Adam Wainwright -- he of the 10 punchouts in 5 2/3 innings in Game 1 -- awaiting them.

Doesn't get much more fun than that.

But this is October. The fun comes later -- if you win enough. The hard work comes now. So it was no accident that the players with the most familiarity with this time of year stood front and center in that Nationals clubhouse after Game 3.

Werth, a man who had played 44 postseason games (for the Dodgers and Phillies) before he ever walked into that room, was the first to put on his philosopher hat and hold court. He had a message to deliver, and he delivered it multiple times:

"We've got one game to play. And we've got one game to win."

He said it once. He said it twice. He said it eight times. These are the moments when men who have lived through this understand the deal. Survival is about winning the next game you play. It's a simple game. Isn't it?

He knew his team had gotten smoked, 12-4 and 8-zip, in back-to-back games. But Werth had his answers to that question down, too.

"For me, it really doesn't matter how you lose," he said. "A win's a win. A loss is a loss. We get up tomorrow, and we get to play another baseball game. It's just baseball."

He doesn't want to know, then, that the Nationals just became the fourth team in history to lose back-to-back games in the same postseason series by eight runs or more. The others were Dustin Pedroia's 2008 Red Sox (to Tampa Bay), Casey Blake's 2007 Indians (to Boston) and Bill Mazeroski's 1960 Pirates (to the Yankees).

Only those Pirates -- who took 16-3 and 10-0 poundings from the mighty Yankees in Games 2 and 3 of a wild and crazed World Series -- recovered from those wipeouts to win that series. And we can just imagine Mazeroski and Vernon Law, standing at their lockers after those scrunchings, saying stuff like: "We just have to win tomorrow, and I like our chances."

Jayson Werth uttered those words Wednesday. He also uttered these: "We just have to play like we played all year. That's how we won the NL East."

But no more than 25 feet away, in that same locker room, another veteran of many Octobers, utility man Mark DeRosa, had a different take. He's now played for five teams that made it this far -- the Braves, Cubs, Cardinals, Giants and Nationals. And after seeing what he's seen, after living what he's lived, he no longer believes the way to go, at times like this, is just to "do what we've done all year."

Chris Carpenter
Chris Carpenter, making only his fourth start of the season, tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He scattered seven hits and issued a pair of walks.

"I'm different," said DeRosa, who has battled injuries and got left off the roster for this series. "A lot of people go: 'We've got to play the same way we've played all year.' Coming through the Braves' organization, and seeing us win all those division titles and not advance far in the postseason in the times I was there, I always felt like that was the mentality that we took: Just play it like any other series during the regular season.

"But I like putting the added pressure on and [embracing] the finality of it, the football mentality of it. So that'll be my little speech to the guys tomorrow: There is no tomorrow. Even though that's stating the obvious, I think if you approach each pitch like that, you're better off. You can't do it for 162 games. But you can do it for a short series. You can do it when the money's on the line."

DeRosa knows baseball teams can't charge out of the tunnel, spitting fireballs, and then expect to be patient enough to take a changeup the other way or remember to hit the cutoff man. But they CAN use the urgency of situations like this for fuel, he says.

"Go after it," he said. "That's what I think. In 2010 [with the Giants], I told Cody Ross that when we were in Philly and it was lined up for them to win the NLCS. I said, 'You might never get this opportunity again. Don't let it pass you by.'"

Just three years ago, DeRosa played in October with many of these same players on the 2009 Cardinals. And he knows how well they understand that a big part of the postseason is the attitude with which you play. Asked whether he thought the young players around him in Washington understood that, he replied: "Good question."

Asked whether he thought they could learn to understand it by Game 4, he laughed.

"We need to," he said. "We definitely need to."

If there was just one area the Nationals needed to fix, it would be one thing. But the truth is, the Cardinals have been the better team in every aspect of this sport.

The Nationals' three starting pitchers in this series have combined for a 7.62 ERA and a 1.85 WHIP. Over these past two losses, the bullpen has been mugged for 11 runs in nine innings. And the same lineup that led the league in runs scored over the final 72 games of the regular season has scored seven runs, total, in three games -- and gone 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position.

Other than the brilliance of Ian Desmond (7-for-12) and the steadiness of Ryan Zimmerman (5-for-13), the Nationals' hitters have played right into the hands of a Cardinals pitching staff that has given them very few good pitches to hit. Danny Espinosa is 1-for-10 with five strikeouts. And everybody's favorite 19-year-old, Bryce Harper, is 1-for-15 with six strikeouts after taking an 0-for-5 day (with two line-drive outs) Wednesday.

"It's too easy to sit back and point at one thing or say he's pressing or say it's too big a situation for him," Werth said of Harper. "But I believe in that kid. I really do. If tomorrow, he goes out and doesn't get any hits, I'll bet on him the next day. He's my guy. I think he's a great player. He's a very special player. He's a once-in-a-lifetime type guy. I'm not too worried about him."

And speaking of phenoms, then there's Strasburg. We know you're thinking it. So there it is.

Do his teammates wonder sometimes, privately, what might have been if their team had played this differently and found a way for their ace to pitch in these games? Of course they do. But they've known for a long time now that when they climbed onto this stage, he wouldn't be making that climb with them. So it does them no good to think about it, worry about it or spout off about it now.

Ross Detwiler
The Nationals turn to Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40 ERA) to save their season. He'll oppose the Cards' Kyle Lohse in Thursday's Game 4.

"We went through the whole September without him, so we're kind of used to it," reliever Craig Stammen said. "And we knew it was going to happen. So, to us, we really don't think about it."

Asked whether he knew Strasburg would be a hot October topic if the Nationals lost a series or even found themselves in danger of it, Werth didn't run from the subject.

"I don't think there's any way around it," he said. "It'll be a topic no matter what."

But he's known this was coming since last year, he said. He's known it since he questioned, in September 2011, why Strasburg was back pitching in the big leagues. And he was told, by management, as far back as 13 months ago, exactly what the program held in store for Strasburg, last year and this year, no matter what.

"So it's never really been an issue for me," Werth said. "Obviously, the media and the rest of the world wasn't in on that conversation."

A week ago, a month ago, the Nationals all were convinced they were good enough to win a World Series without Strasburg. And no matter what's gone down in this series, it's a little too easy, a little too convenient, to start concluding it would all be different with him.

Remember now: Even if Strasburg had pitched a no-hitter in Game 1, would he have been available to hit fifth and get like eight hits with men in scoring position in Games 2 and 3? If not, the Nationals would have been in trouble anyhow. Wouldn't they?

But all this is just part of the magic of October with which Washingtonians are not particularly familiar. We don't just watch. We also wonder about what might have happened, what could have happened, as much as we reflect upon what actually did happen.

So what actually did happen Wednesday is this: Chris Carpenter added another memorable page to his October scrapbook. The defending champs reminded us why it was they won the last World Series. And after 79 years of waiting for one postseason baseball game -- a period of time so endless that New Yorkers got to host 472 postseason baseball games in between -- the citizens of our nation's capital finally got to host another one Wednesday.

Maybe Thursday, they might actually get to see their team score a run.