Ted Leavengood: Shooting for the moon

The St. Louis Cardinals are not only the reigning world champions, but they are in a tight race with the Braves and Dodgers for the National League wild card. They probably still hold out hope that they can catch the Reds, which is why taking three of four from a team like St. Louis at this point in the season is as impressive as it is crucial.

And there is no better test of the Nationals’ starting rotation - the best in baseball - than the Cards. They are the most potent offensive team in the National League, so the immovable object met the unstoppable force for a four-game series in D.C.

As play began Thursday, St. Louis led the NL in batting average at .274 and in runs per game at 4.80. Four of the first five batters were hitting above .300. Carlos Beltran - he of the 28 home runs - was the only weak link. After losing the first two games, the Cardinals had their backs to the wall and the strength of their offense showed Saturday as they battled back from every deficit that the Nationals could force upon them. And the resulting 10-9 loss was a tough one for the Nationals because they so sorely needed to get back on track.

Which is what happened on Sunday with another key series win. Stephen Strasburg was better than the best. He allowed only two hits over six masterful innings in which he struck out nine of the best hitters in the NL. Sean Burnett let the Cardinals back into the game, but a great game from Kurt Suzuki and timely hits from Chad Tracy, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa provided just enough for a 4-3 win in a must-win situation.

Strasburg will only have two more starts, the team announced after Sunday’s game. Barring any rainouts or other unseen events, his last game will be against the Mets on Sept. 12.

For Washington, the loss of Strasburg is like one of those powerful rockets that jettisoned its big first-stage booster on its way to the moon. There is plenty in the tank for the Nationals. After watching Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson pitch such strong outings against the Cardinals, there is little doubt that the four-man crew of Jackson, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler has the right stuff to carry the Nationals all the way to October.

And then there is John Lannan, whose last two starts for Triple-A Syracuse were complete-game shutouts. The very last start was his best of the season, as he struck out 10 Charlotte batters. No one doubts that Lannan will leave everything on the field when it is his turn to take the mound later this month.

Is he Strasburg? No. But he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to be John Lannan, a pretty fair country pitcher in his own right who has won 40 big league games and has a career ERA of 3.99.

If there is any pressure that Strasburg’s departure creates, it is on the offense. Everyone was hoping that a Bryce Harper hot streak would kick in down the stretch and the eight RBI and three home runs in the last five games are hopeful indicators that such a surge is in the offing. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse had big hits as well.

The bottom half of the order: Desmond, Espinosa, and Suzuki carried the day Sunday, so the offense looks like it is going to be strong until the finish. With the Braves’ improbable comeback against the Phillies on Sunday night, the Nationals will begin their four-game homestand against the Cubs on Monday with a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL East.

It won’t get easier over the 29 games left to play in this most exciting of seasons. There will be events to rouse passions more than whether Strasburg is pitching or not, plenty of drama in a season that already has been as improbable as a man on the moon.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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