By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) -- A controversial decision kept Stephen Strasburg from facing the St. Louis Cardinals in last year's playoffs.
The Washington Nationals' staff ace is now trying to avoid the longest slide of his career, but he's not entirely to blame.
Hindered by a lack of run support and sloppy defense, Strasburg tries to avoid a fourth straight loss and salvage a victory for the Nationals in Wednesday's series finale with the visiting Cardinals.
Washington (10-10) had an innings limit on Strasburg last year since it was his first full season returning from Tommy John surgery. That decision fueled national debate, with the Nationals unexpectedly leading the majors with 98 wins and claiming the NL East to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1981 as the Montreal Expos.
With the ace out, Washington exited the NL division series in five games at the hands of the Cardinals (12-8).
Strasburg (1-3, 2.96 ERA) got this year off to a strong start, allowing three hits in seven innings of a 2-0 win over Miami on April 1. Since then, however, the right-hander has matched a career high by losing three straight starts.
Over the last two games, Strasburg has done his part, with only two of the six runs allowed in 12 innings counting as earned. He's been backed by one run in each contest.
He pitched well enough to win his only meeting with St. Louis on Sept. 2, yielding two hits with nine strikeouts in six scoreless innings before the bullpen wasted his effort in a 4-3 home win.
The offense continues to be a problem for the Nationals, who try to avoid a six-game home losing streak for the first time since Sept. 7-20, 2010. They're batting .163 and have plated seven runs over that stretch, and rank toward the bottom of the NL with a .236 average on the season.
The Nationals were shut down by Adam Wainwright on Tuesday, managing five hits in a 2-0 loss to fall for the eighth time in 11 games.
"I'm usually pretty patient, but I'm getting at my rope's end," manager Davey Johnson said. "The effort's there, but we're just not getting it done. We've got the players to get it done. We're just not getting it done. It's time to get a little mad."
Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa - Washington's 2-4-5-6-7 hitters - are a combined 4 for 38 in this series.
Bryce Harper continues to be a bright spot, hitting .385 at home after getting two hits Tuesday. His only hit in three at-bats versus Jaime Garcia - the Cardinals' scheduled starter Wednesday - was a solo homer, but he fanned in both postseason matchups.
Garcia (1-1, 3.22) will try to help St. Louis complete the series sweep by rebounding from perhaps the worst start of his four-plus years in the majors.
The left-hander was tagged for a career-high eight runs - four earned - and nine hits in three innings of a rain-shortened 8-2 loss at Philadelphia on Friday. He had a 1.86 ERA over his first three starts.
"Next time, we expect to see the Jaime we have been seeing," manager Mike Matheny told the team's official website.
That certainly wasn't the case in Garcia's last start at Washington on Aug. 30, when he surrendered six runs and two homers in 5 1-3 innings of an 8-1 loss.
He faced the Nationals again in Game 2 of the NLDS, but a shoulder injury forced him to exit after two innings, allowing one run and three walks.
Updated April 24, 2013