WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg joined his teammates for an off-day workout at Nationals Park on Tuesday, red socks pulled nearly up to his knees while tossing baseballs in the outfield a day before the first postseason game in the nation’s capital in 79 years.
That’s about the extent of activity these days for Strasburg as the Washington Nationals carry on without their acknowledged ace, shut down a month ago.
The NL East champions’ opponent right now, the St. Louis Cardinals, are very much counting on their returning ace, Chris Carpenter, who has pitched only 17 innings all year. Carpenter will be on the mound this afternoon for Game 3 of the NL division series, facing Washington’s Edwin Jackson. The best-of-five series is tied at 1.
The 37-year-old Carpenter had surgery in July for a nerve problem that left his throwing arm and much of the right side of his body numb. He came back on Sept. 21, and is 0-2 with a 3.71 ERA in three starts.
“Everybody knows that it wasn’t supposed to happen," Carpenter said about the prospect of pitching at all in 2012. “I put a lot of work into it, to hopefully have this opportunity. I didn’t know if I was going to have this opportunity or not — and fortunately, I do."
He is 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA in the postseason for his career.
That includes going 4-0 with a 3.25 ERA last year while helping St. Louis win the World Series; he beat the Texas Rangers in Game 7 for the title.
“Him winning the World Series last year or whenever isn’t going to do anything for him tomorrow," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s a great pitcher, and nobody’s taking anything away from him in that aspect, but tomorrow we’re going to go out there with our plan and try and do what we’ve done all year."
Which was good enough to own the best record in the major leagues at 98-64. Strasburg played a key role up until his final start, a three-inning outing on Sept. 7. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA with 197 strikeouts in 159 1⁄3 innings. General manager Mike Rizzo made quite clear all season that his prized right-hander’s innings would be limited in his first full season back from Sept. 3, 2010, reconstructive elbow surgery. Unable to put Strasburg on the mound now, the Nationals used playoff rookies Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in Games 1 and 2.
“The starting pitching, we showed a little inexperience there," manager Davey Johnson said. “I mean, not going right after hitters — and also not pitching."
Going up against Carpenter will be his former teammate Jackson, the only starting pitcher on Washington’s roster who ever had participated in a playoff game before this season — the Cardinals in 2011. He went 10-11 this season, but Washington’s record in Jackson’s starts was only 12-19.
“It’s high expectations on me. I have high expectations on myself, as well," the right-hander said. “This is one of those games where you go out and you try to lead by example."