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Doomed from the first pitch

Stephen Strasburg winning the first pitch battle did wonders in holding the Cardinals lineup at bay

Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welp. For all intents and purposes, Game 3 was essentially a repeat of Games 1 and 2–only this time featuring a clunker on the other side of the ball as well. While the Cardinals briefly showed signs of life at the plate in the top of the 7th, last night’s contest felt as if it were over well before then thanks to a lights-out performance from Stephen Strasburg.

After two trips through the batting order, Marcell Ozuna was the only Cardinal to even make it into scoring position; meanwhile, the third inning proved to be all the offense the Nationals would need to seize a commanding 3-0 series lead. One thing in particular that jumped out to me after watching Strasburg pump in yet another called strike one was the relative lack of aggression on first pitches, swinging just four times over the course of the first 18 plate appearances.

During the regular season, Strasburg dealt first pitches in the strike zone 54.4% of the time compared to 42.0% in other counts. Moreover, his career difference in allowed weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .212 through 0-1 counts versus .336 through 1-0 is higher than MLB-wide marks .270 and .363, respectively, meaning that it’s especially perilous to find yourself in the hole with Strasburg on the mound.

Of the 18 trips to the plate the first two times around, 10 resulted in an 0-1 count, six in a 1-0 count, and two in batted ball outs. If we deem a ball or a hit to be a “successful” first pitch from the hitter’s perspective, nearly 40% of Strasburg first pitches in the regular season fit the description as opposed to six balls and no hits in 18 chances early last night. It was especially curious to see St. Louis play the waiting game against Strasburg behind home plate umpire Bill Miller, whose strike rate in the regular season was fourth highest among 89 umpires.

Over the final 10 at-bats of Strasburg’s 12-strikeout, no-walk gem, the Cardinals took four first pitch hacks, including a pair of singles that ultimately plated their lone run as his pitch count ran up and his velocity began to dip. Of course, whatever marginal victories St. Louis could claim against Strasburg were far too little and much too late to surmount what was already a 7-0 Nationals lead at the time.

Needless to say, Washington’s frontline starting pitchers are simply too talented to be given the upper hand against this anemic lineup from the first pitch. I don’t think many Cardinals fans will be disappointed holistically with an NLCS berth, but if St. Louis is going to stave off elimination and claw their way back into this series, it’ll have to begin by ensuring that they aren’t perpetually digging in from behind as Patrick Corbin toes the rubber in Game 4.