Do you think the Washington Nationals miss ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg right about now? How about the Cincinnati Reds and their missing ace Johnny Cueto?
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When the National League playoffs began last Friday, the NL Central champion Reds were the 2/1 favorites to win the pennant, followed right behind by the NL East champion Nationals (9/4), the team with the best record in baseball this season.
However, both favorites could find their season finished on Thursday in large part because their aces aren't available.
Of course the Nats had planned all along to shut down Strasburg at around 160 innings this season, and they did so after his Sept. 7 start. He won't be riding to the rescue. After taking their opener of the NL Division Series against wild-card winner St. Louis, the Nats have been outscored 20-4 in the next two games and face elimination at home Thursday.
If Strasburg had been on the roster, he would have no doubt pitched Game 1, which the Nats won 3-2 behind Cy Young favorite Gio Gonzalez. But Game 2 Nats starter Jordan Zimmermann lasted just three innings and allowed five runs in the 12-4 loss. Wednesday's starter, Edwin Jackson, lasted five innings and allowed four runs and eight hits in the 8-0 defeat.
It's obviously not fair to simply point the finger at the Nats' pitchers for their predicament. The only two lineup regulars who are hitting are shortstop Ian Desmond (.583) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.385, 1 HR, 2 RBIs). Jayson Werth is hitting .250 with no RBIs and five strikeouts. Adam LaRoche is at .091. And rookie phenom Bryce Harper looks overmatched, hitting just .067 with six strikeouts.
Now, instead of possibly having Strasburg, Gonzalez or even Zimmermann (who was very good in the regular season) in Thursday's must-win game, the Nationals must turn to unheralded lefty Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40) on 12 days' rest. He was a pleasant surprise this season but didn't end it well, losing his final two starts. His final game was Sept. 30 at St. Louis, where he allowed seven runs (three earned) in 2.1 innings. Carlos Beltran got him for a two-run homer in that game and Beltran is raking in the NLDS with a .375 average, two homers and three RBIs.
St. Louis starts right-hander Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) and opened as a slight -106 favorite at the book. He got the win in the one-game wild-card playoff vs. Atlanta, allowing two runs in 5.2 innings. Lohse is still only 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA in his playoff career. Lohse had two starts vs. Washington this season and had two no-decisions despite a 6.94 ERA.
The Cardinals were the 7/1 long shots entering the playoffs to win the NL but might have to be considered favorites now (up to 4/1 before Game 3). Should St. Louis win Game 4, it would have aces Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Lohse set up perfectly to go in the first three games of the NLCS. If Washington forces Game 5, Gonzalez would oppose Wainwright. And should the Nats win, then Gonzalez wouldn't be available until probably Game 3 of the NLCS (another time Strasburg would be missed).
Meanwhile, the Reds were able to win the first two games of their NLDS at San Francisco despite losing Cueto after just eight pitches in Game 1 due an oblique injury. Cueto has been removed from the Division Series roster, which means he can't pitch in the NLCS. He would be allowed to be on the World Series roster should the Reds get that far and Cueto be healthy.
The Giants won a 2-1 pitching duel in a Game 3 thriller in 10 innings and then exploded for eight runs in Wednesday's 8-3 victory in Cincinnati. The Giants had eight extra-base hits on Wednesday (three homers), a franchise playoff record. The Reds originally were hoping that Cueto could pitch Game 4 but obviously his injury was worse than first anticipated. Replacement Mike Leake was knocked around for five runs in 4.1 innings.
This is just the third series in LDS history that the road team won the first four games. Entering this season, 42 teams had taken a 2-0 lead in an LDS. Four have rallied to win the series but it has never happened in the National League.
Now the Reds turn again to Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48) and they are opening -112 favorites. He allowed one run in four innings of relief in Game 1 (originally was to start Game 3). In two starts vs. the Giants during the season, Latos was 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA and an opponent's batting average of .115. San Francisco goes with Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79). He allowed three runs in five innings in taking the Game 1 loss. Cain started twice vs. Cincinnati during the season, going 0-2 with a 5.54 ERA.
This is the first winner-take-all game for Cincinnati since the 1975 World Series. The Giants, meanwhile, are 1-5 all-time in these games. There will be live betting on every playoff game at the book. The NLCS is set to begin Sunday.
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