For the first time in Nationals history, three players were named to the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Star team. Starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the backbone of the best pitching staff in the sport, and shortstop Ian Desmond, the team’s most consistent position player, will be the National’ three representatives.
And rookie Bryce Harper could make it four. He was named to the National League All-Star Game final five-man vote for the last spot on the roster. Harper, 19, was selected for the final ballot by National League All-Star Manager Tony LaRussa.
“It’s huge,” Strasburg said before Sunday’s game. “It means that we’re winning. Typically the team in last place only gets one guy.”
The selection marks a full circle return for Strasburg. After being selected first overall by the Nationals in 2009 as one of the generation’s best pitching prospects, Strasburg’s dazzling start with the Nationals in 2010 was cut short by a terrifying elbow injury. The subsequent Tommy John surgery and rehabilitation knocked him out for over a year, making only a handful of starts last season.
“It’s amazing to think where I was a year ago,” Strasburg said. “It’s great to see that all the hard work has all paid off.”
This season, despite the looming cloud of an innings limit later this summer, Strasburg (9-3) has been among the game’s best pitchers this season. All the media circus and attention surrounding him subsided, and Strasburg was able to just pitch. He leads the majors with 122 strikeouts, sports a measly 2.81 ERA and opponents are hitting only .217 against him. His explosive fastball, according to FanGraphs.com, has the highest average velocity in the majors at 96.1 mph this season. He freezes batters with the combination of that pitch and a freezing changeup.
Gonzalez has been a valuable addition atop the starting rotation and among the game’s best left-handed starters. The Nationals had long sought another front-line starter and pulled off a trade for Gonzalez in last December, sending four of their best prospects to the Oakland Athletics for the left-hander. Following the trade, the Nationals signed Gonzalez to an extension through 2016 with team options for 2017 and 2018.
Gonzalez has even shed some of the reputation as power pitcher with wildness. He has been a consistent force, striking out 108 batters and ranking third-lowest in the majors with a miniscule .190 batting average against. His fastball and knee-buckling curveball have propelled him to a team-best 10-3 record and a 2.78 ERA.
Strasburg and Gonzalez have been a major reason for the Nationals’ success this season. In games started by either pitcher, the team has a 24-7 record.
“That’s obviously a great honor and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Strasburg said. “But at the same time I want to help this team get to a World Series someday and get to the playoffs year in year out.”
Desmond was selected as a manager’s decision. Tony LaRussa, the manager of the NL team, has long been enamored with Desmond. He has among the constant in an injured and slumping Nationals lineup.
He has been among the best shortstops in the National League, playing solid defense and the source of several clutch hits. Among NL shortstops, he ranks fourth in hitting (.276), second in slugging (.483), second in home runs (13) and first in runs batted in (43). He is also a team leader, a caring teammate and the calming voice in the field when pitchers struggle.
Desmond is among the longest-serving Nationals, having been in the organization since he was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004. He made his major league debut in 2009 and now, in his third full season in the majors, has developed and improved into an all-star.
The last time the Nationals had more than one all-star selection was in 2005 when pitchers Livan Hernandez and Chad Cordero were named to the team. This season has been one of firsts for the Nationals, long a franchise with a losing tradition. They’ve spent most of the season in first-place in the NL East and, even, among the best teams in the majors with the best record in the NL.
“I don’t think it’s a secret, people around the game and people in uniform, everybody notices who we are and the makeup of this ball club,” Manager Davey Johnson said in anticipation of the announcements. “They know we have a lot of talent.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo has said that if Strasburg were selected to the All-Star Game and his pitching schedule allows it, Strasburg would be allowed to pitch.
“It’d be awesome to have that opportunity,” Strasburg said. “But a lot of factors can weigh in that. I think right now, it’s going to be an exciting experience but at the same time, I’m looking towards my next start and getting back on track and help this team win some games.”
This is the first all-star selections for Strasburg and Desmond. Gonzalez was an all-star in 2011 for the Oakland Athletics.
Strasburg and Gonzalez were selected by player ballot and finished third and fourth, respectively, among NL starters.
Adam LaRoche finished sixth in voting among NL first baseman. Ryan Zimmerman finished eighth among third baseman.
Desmond wasn’t among the top eight NL shortstops based on fan voting.