The weekend series the Nationals just completed against the Boston Red Sox felt like a playoff test. Sure, the Red Sox are not having the start they are used to. But Fenway Park is always one of the toughest venues for the visiting team. Boston is built to win in this park.
The Nationals have had a good start to the season. They have played well at home and on the road. They have avoided long losing streaks and have been able to bounce back quickly when a rough patch occurs.
Following the Nationals’ series with the Mets, the probable pitchers were announced for the Red Sox series:
* Stephen Strasburg
* Gio Gonzalez
* Jordan Zimmermann
Pretend this was a divisional series. Isn’t that the set up you’d want in the first three games? You bet. For the Nationals, this is exactly who you want to start a playoff series. Because imagine being the opponent and having to face that gauntlet. That is what the Red Sox faced this weekend in 7-4, 4-2 and 4-3 Nationals victories.
Clutch hits and big defensive plays, but the bottom line for the Nationals: Quality starting pitching added up to a franchise first, a sweep at Fenway Park.
So, what about Aug. 15? Around that date, Strasburg will get to the 160-innings cutoff. Will the Nationals have to go the rest of the way with Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Detwiler or John Lannan - or some mixture of two of those three - to get into the NL playoffs?
Some teams, like the Atlanta Braves or maybe the San Francisco Giants of 2011, were looking good for most of the season until fading at the end.
Can the Nationals avoid a late-season swoon without Strasburg?
If the Nationals are rolling, can they hang on for the final 45 days of the season without Strasburg? Would they bring him back in the playoffs?
And what about the big three I spoke about at the top? Will the Nationals’ fate be sealed if they make the playoffs and then don’t have the Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann 1-2-3 punch available?
Just like winning all those series and not being able to get the sweep (recent Atlanta and Boston series excluded, of course), one would rather have won the first two games of each series than not be in a position to sweep a series.
The same argument could be made for a final playoff push in late August and into September. Being in that position or being in the running for a postseason spot is still pretty elite company. So let’s get to Strasburg’s innings limit and see what general manager Mike Rizzo decides.
That will be some pressure, don’t you think?
The Nationals passed another test filled with pressure situations this weekend. Let’s see if they can keep it going so August matters enough to have this possibility play itself out.