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Cardinals vs. Nationals, Game 3: Chris Carpenter and Stephen Strasburg and playing dice with the rotation

Chris Carpenter threw 17 innings in the regular season; Stephen Strasburg threw 159.

Scott Kane-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Neither pitcher going in Game 3 of the NLDS—the first game in Washington D.C., the game that will give one team the chance to clinch on Thursday—makes a lot of sense in this spot, after one look at the teams' Baseball-Reference pages. Edwin Jackson finished fifth on the Washington Nationals in ERA; Chris Carpenter finished 17th on the St. Louis Cardinals in innings pitched, directly behind Barret Browning and Kyle McClellan and just over three frames ahead of Shelby Miller.

Which is to say that the enormous bulk of these two regular seasons—the Cardinals defending their championship without Albert Pujols, the Nationals making the postseason for the first time since the Cardinals' 29-year-old postseason-hero third baseman was Pepper Martin—is currently balanced atop Chris Carpenter's Wolverine powers and whatever science there is that suggests Stephen Strasburg is better off not pitching 30 more innings this year.

If you woke up on Tuesday with a small-to-medium-sized pit in your stomach, I hope that might explain it. It's balanced out, Wednesday, inasmuch as both teams are shirking the regular season's suggestions, but I don't think postseason nerves work like that; the other guy's moves are always going to work, or at least have to be treated that way, while your team's moves are uncertain and terrifying until proven otherwise.

With Jaime Garcia reportedly off the postseason roster (and directly into Joe Strauss's universe of furious unnamed teammates) Carpenter's performance on Wednesday is more important still; the Cardinals are now out at least one of their useful long relievers, and could find themselves missing another if Carpenter needs the same quick-and-semi-permanent-hook treatment.

The Nationals have less uncertainty to deal with in the moment, because Edwin Jackson is one of the most certain starters in baseball. He'll throw something that looks like a quality start, it will take forever, and he'll leave having pitched between five and seven innings and between 100 and 250 pitches.

But they're leaving something with an obvious value on the table with the unprovable hope that it will get more valuable next year. Wednesday night we'll know, good or bad, whether Chris Carpenter was ready to go. Nationals fans will have the next decade or so to wonder whether not starting Stephen Strasburg was the right call, and they'll never quite get a satisfying answer.

In situations like this—starts on short rest, postseason hot-hand-playing—the regular season is what we have to bank on, which was why it was nice to see every offensive weapon but Matt Holliday answer the roll call on Monday. Whatever Chris Carpenter can do, the Cardinals' offense is explicitly capable of picking up a starter with undisclosed shoulder problems. However rough the Cardinals' bullpen runs, surprise assets like Trevor Rosenthal can be swapped in for tired set-up men.

On an off-day it's hard, at least for me, to integrate those two sides of the postseason. The Cardinals we know—whom we can expect to perform at a certain level—will all be there, and they'll all be dependent on something we can't quite know, which is just how good Chris Carpenter feels after three starts in lieu of Spring Training and a rehab stint.

It'll happen Wednesday, though, provided I wake up early enough to watch the game. (First pitch is currently set for 4 a.m., so that TBS can finish its regularly scheduled Big Bang Theory marathon before the Yankees play.) Right now Chris Carpenter is an enigma; after he throws his first tailing low-90s fastball, and swears his first oath at Edwin Jackson, I'll believe in him as much as I do everyone I watched for 150 games, whether I should or shouldn't.