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Rick Snider: Nationals not ready for this stage?

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Photo - St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran, left, slides into home plate past Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki for a run on a single by Matt Holliday in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the National League division baseball series on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran, left, slides into home plate past Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki for a run on a single by Matt Holliday in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the National League division baseball series on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Did the Washington Nationals peak too soon?

The Nats are one loss away from the offseason after falling 8-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday at Nationals Park, trailing the best-of-five series 2-1. And really, they're a Tyler Moore pinch hit away from being swept.

The best team in baseball really hasn't looked good over the past few weeks. Starting with a sweep by Atlanta in mid-September, the Nats finished the regular season 9-10, and now they are getting outplayed by the defending champions in the postseason. The Cardinals pummeled the Nats on Monday and scored four runs in the first two innings Wednesday to silence a packed park.

(View photo galleries with images from the game or the scene at Nationals Park)

Naturally, the Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate begins. The Nats' starting rotation sure needs him, but so does the offense. The Nats were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position in Game 3 and left 11 runners on base. Bryce Harper's 0-for-5 effort left him 1-for-15 with six strikeouts in the series.

Teddy won again, but he was the only local to reach home.

Washington can win the next two games, but manager Davey Johnson needs to pull out his best pep talk to reverse this malaise. The Nats should have been adrenaline junkies given the record 45,017 fans who packed the park. This day was what the past seven years have been about since baseball returned to Washington.

A victory would have given the Nats control of the series -- and maybe led to the NL Championship Series. And from there, it's an obtainable dream to the first World Series in town since 1933.

But it all went away in the game's first hour. Nats starter Edwin Jackson often stinks if he gives up a run in the first inning. Well, he did, and his first inning was made worse when he gave up three more in the second off Pete Kozma's homer.

Still, the Nats have been known all season for big innings. There was time -- but only wasted chances.

By the seventh inning, the fans were leaving. The trickle became a flood even though the hosts still had a few more at-bats. Washington sports fans are used to being disappointed. They were hoping at least to beat traffic, if not the Cardinals. Neither happened.

The second biggest baseball game in Washington's recent history -- only behind the Nationals' 2005 debut -- was a resounding bust. By the eighth, the crowd was left to amuse itself by finishing an A-ha tune.

Maybe the Nats can rally. Perhaps they can delay the offseason by one day or even steal the series Friday. But given the recent tailspin, it's doubtful.

The Nats don't appear ready to be champions yet. It has been only three years since consecutive 100-loss seasons. Harper needs some seasoning. Strasburg needs to be one more year removed from his Tommy John surgery.

St. Louis is showing how champions silence challengers. If nothing else, Washington's future should benefit from this ongoing lesson.

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or email rsnider@washingtonexaminer.com.

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