Stephen Strasburg's brilliance can't save Nats from their October issues

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg's best wasn't good enough.

In Game 1 of the National League Division Series, Strasburg picked up right where he left off at the end of the regular season, when he was the NL's best pitcher in the second half. Facing the defending World Series champion Cubs, Strasburg didn't give up a hit through five innings, the second-longest no-hit bid of his career. He fanned Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant twice each, the first time in more than two months that Rizzo and Bryant both had a pair of whiffs in the same game.

He gave up three hits and no earned runs over seven innings, struck out 10 and needed only 81 pitches to do it, repeatedly inducing chants of "Let's go Strasburg," which pretty much never happens at Nats Park.

In short, he was brilliant. But it didn't matter.

It didn't matter because Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks decided to channel his inner-Irving Berlin ("Anything you can do, I can do better"), tossing seven innings of two-hit ball and generally baffling the Nats' bats. It didn't matter because MVP candidate Anthony Rendon -- who committed fewer errors than any third baseman in the majors this season -- flubbed an easy chopper that put Javier Baez on base to start the sixth, leading to two unearned runs that seemed more like 20.

It didn't matter because, despite getting the very best version of Stephen Strasburg that they ever could have hoped for, the Nationals still lost. Even worse, they lost a game they couldn't afford to lose.

If ace Max Scherzer were pitching on Saturday in Game 2, Friday's defeat would seem infinitely more tolerable for the Nationals. But Scherzer -- he of the two Cy Young awards and one tweaked hammy -- needs extra time to convalesce and isn't slated to pitch until Game 3 in Chicago.

Instead, skipper Dusty Baker will send Gio Gonzalez to the hill Saturday -- the same Gio Gonzalez who, after a stellar first five months of the season, worked to a 6.75 ERA over his final four starts. At best, the left-hander rediscovers his groove and helps the Nats knot the series, their home-field advantage already shot. At worst, Gonzalez continues his slide, Washington continues what has been a disturbing multiseason trend of offensive impotence in the playoffs, and the Nationals continue on to Chicago in a two-game hole.


"Yeah, it does," Baker said when asked postgame if his team's "L" stung a little more given how well Strasburg threw. "He was doing all he could. You know, we just couldn't muster up too much offense tonight. We'll be better tomorrow."

Being better isn't just about scoring more runs. It's about catching the ball, which Washington didn't do well all season (minus-37 runs saved, worst among playoff teams), and which Rendon didn't do when he needed to. It's about hitting the cutoff man, which Bryce Harper didn't do on Bryant's RBI single in the sixth, allowing Bryant to advance to second (he scored on Rizzo's single two pitches later). It's about mastering the minutia necessary to win games in October.

"That's playoff baseball," Ryan Zimmerman said.

"Both pitchers threw great tonight," he said. "Stras threw the heck out of the ball. That was fun to watch. Their guy also threw the ball well. You have to kind of do the little things right and take advantage of the breaks you get, like they did.

"But that was Game 1. Obviously would have rather won that game, but it's never easy."

Easy, of course, is all relative. For the Nationals, October has proven decidedly difficult. Before this year, they had been to the playoffs three times since moving to D.C. in 2005. All three times -- in 2012, 2014 and 2016 -- they've been the higher seed, and all three times they've been bounced in the NLDS. Given that, and given what happened Friday, it's hard not to think they're headed a fourth fall failure.

Then again, it's worth noting that last year against the Dodgers, Washington dropped the opener at home -- in a game started by Scherzer -- only to rebound and win the next two. And that was with zero contributions from Strasburg, who missed the 2016 playoffs after suffering a torn pronator tendon down the stretch. In other words, just because Strasburg's best wasn't good enough in Game 1, that doesn't mean the Nats' best isn't yet to come.

"Obviously it didn't go the way we wanted tonight," Zimmerman said. "But we'll bounce back tomorrow."