WASHINGTON – This was a tale of two pitchers.
One stood on the mound at Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon less than three months after doctors sawed out a rib and released muscles just beneath his pitching shoulder. He says he can still feel the place where the rib used to sit. He says the feeling is strange, but he forces himself to pitch through the sensation because these are the playoffs and if you want to win in the playoffs this is what you do.
The other pitcher does not have strange sensations in his right arm, mainly because he hasn't thrown from a mound for close to a month. The reason for this is because of the tendon doctors sewed into his elbow more than two years ago. His team worries that pitching in these playoffs could strain that tendon, perhaps damaging it, even though there is no evidence this is happening.
So while Chris Carpenter rewrote all sensible manuals on recovery from a rib removal by pitching 5 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Stephen Strasburg sat as he has for all of October. And that, more than anything else, is why the St. Louis Cardinals are a game away from knocking the Nationals from the postseason.
Until Wednesday, Strasburg's absence from this series could not be considered a significant factor. This was because Games 1 and 2 starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann were always going to pitch. They probably wouldn't have started the first two games but one of them would have been pitching in Game 3 and Washington wouldn't have been forced to use Edwin Jackson as it did Wednesday.
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In the pivotal game of a series that had been tied 1-1, Jackson was awful for the first two innings. He gave up four runs and was probably lucky to have allowed only that. The sight of a 4-0 deficit on the giant right-field scoreboard 1 ½ innings into the game sucked the joy from the stadium like a deflating balloon. A sellout crowd was quiet for much of the day.
No one, of course, can know how dominant Strasburg would have been in a Game 1 start. Maybe he would have followed the rocky lead of Gonzalez and Zimmermann who both struggled in St Louis' Busch Stadium. Maybe he would have been worse than Jackson on Wednesday. But the fact that the Nationals refused to find out is the unspoken cloud that hangs over the franchise. The players don't discuss it because there is nothing good to say. But several weeks ago, former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said several of the Nationals were upset with the decision and wondered why management was all but giving up on their dream season.
The other day, as he stood outside his office at Busch Stadium, Nationals manager Davey Johnson spoke wistfully of Strasburg and said he would have used the starter in Game 1 of this series.
Then he shrugged.
"We made our decision," he said.
The team will most likely have to die by it.
For the Cardinals, getting Carpenter back in late September after he had been declared done for the year was huge, like landing a Cy Young winner in a late-season trade.
"You're adding the guy who won two of the biggest games in the history of the Cardinals franchise, last year," said left fielder Matt Holliday.
No team in recent seasons might demonstrate a better understanding of how to survive postseason baseball than the Cardinals. In their two recent World Series-winning seasons, they won 83 and 90 regular season games – numbers that in divisions other than the National League Central, could well have kept them from October. But each time they won with great starting pitching.
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Without Carpenter they were probably a pitcher short of doing big things. They might not have survived Wednesday with the crowd roaring and the Nationals perpetually threatening. Another pitcher could have panicked. Carpenter has pitched far too many playoff games to panic. And inning after inning he threw ended with a zero on the scoreboard.
Later, Carpenter stood in a corridor beneath Nationals Park and leaned against the wall. He sipped water from a cup and described the surgery that removed his top right rib. The rib had been pushing against muscle that was in turn squeezing nerves, turning his pitching arm into a numb noodle of an appendage.
When he said he would return for the playoffs, his teammates smiled and said the right things. They told people that Carpenter always does what he says. But given the complexity of the operation they did not see how he could pitch again this season. Nobody could.
"It's just the challenge of believing that I can, and it was up to me to meet that challenge," Carpenter said on Wednesday.
Since the muscles released are near his neck, they actually help to hold up his head. And while he has built them back, there are times when he can feel the sensation of trying to support his neck. This doesn't bother him much but it's something he has to fight through.
There is also a positive. The release of the tension in his neck allows him to throw easier. In recent years he said he had to pitch through a discomfort he no longer feels. He notices that he has better control, that he can make pitches go the places he wants. He has better movement.
"I think it will get better the more that I throw," he said.
And right now that is the difference.
One team's best pitcher is getting better while the other's won't even play.
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