Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Washington Nationals are built to last, which is why they need Stephen Strasburg for the long haul

“Whack-O, whack-O, whack-O,” yell the Washington Nationals each night as they greet another of their home run hitters as he returns to their dugout. With a roster that’s finally healthy, Nats hitters have turned this homestand into a coming-out party for the entire offense.

If the postseason started now, the Nats would not only have the top-rated pitching staff in the National League playoffs, but the second-highest scoring offense, too.

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The Post Sports Live crew discusses the emergence of Ross Detwiler and how he may be used in the starting rotation come playoff time.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the emergence of Ross Detwiler and how he may be used in the starting rotation come playoff time.

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For those who think that the Nats are lucky or ahead of schedule or a dubious proposition to reach the playoffs in future years, stop and smell the 12 home runs they dropped on the Cubs on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. After those drubbings, Chicago Manager Dale Sveum said, “That’s just men playing against boys right now” and “this is by far the best team we’ve played all year.”

Men against boys? The Nats are baseball’s second-youngest team.

When Stephen Strasburg pitches his next-to-last game Friday, don’t forget the most important reason he’s being shut down: The Nats are close to building an exceptional team, not just a very good one. They want to maximize all the odds of a long run as a dominant club.

This is how great baseball projects look at the beginning. If you don’t get this far, with your own fans in disbelief and foes stunned to realize they are not just beaten but outclassed, you never make the whole journey. But if you do, it’s amazing.

The Orioles had baseball’s best record from 1960 to ’83. The Braves won 14 straight division titles. The Phillies, a joke for much of a century, just won five straight NL East titles. Boston has just six losing seasons in the last 44 years. St. Louis has been over .500 69 times in 91 years: 76 percent winners!

Six months ago, it looked like by 2013 or ’14 the Nats might be a team with such a chance. Now it already has happened. As Ryan Zimmerman says, “We haven’t done anything yet.” And they haven’t left their first permanent mark.

But after 137games, the Nats are on a 100-win pace. More important, from a 30,000-foot perspective, they’ve done it despite injuries and without even one player performing above his previous best level or above what his potential appeared to be on Opening Day.

Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen all have ERAs at the same levels they had in ’11 or in multiple previous seasons. None is a surprise. True, the rotation has been abnormally healthy. But John Lannan was always waiting at Class AAA to fill a gap. And as counterbalance, everyday players were abnormally injured.

Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, as a group, are slightly below their career-long offensive production per at-bat. Factoring injuries, they’re far below projections. All four have had 30-homer years. In ’12, just 63 combined so far.

Three young players with big obvious talent are all panning out: Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper. But no talent evaluator would have been surprised if you said they would have an OPS-plus (on-base plus slugging adjusted to ballpark) of 121, 101 and 109 this season (100 is MLB average). As a group, you’d expect them to trend even higher in future.

All in all, we’re going to have to accept a reality that seemed remote in April: The Nats are having a fairly normal season and yet they are really, really good. Right now.

The conclusion? This is a franchise that should make every decision based on pursuit of long-run excellence, not high-risk, high-reward gambles for short-term success.

That’s why those, mostly outside the Washington area, who are (still) shrieking about Strasburg, deserve to be ignored. Don’t feed the trolls.

We live in an age that is addicted to trashy controversy, designed to distract us constantly. A byproduct of these fake debates is the need to disregard facts or science or common sense. Such things would ruin a perfectly good shouting match. If you want to spot such waste-of-time “issues,” do a simple trick. Invert. Turn everything upside down.

To illustrate, what would be happening right now if the Nats had chosen to continue to pitch Strasburg? We all know, don’t we? Right now, the Nats would be in the public pillory, pelted with rotten tomatoes, but for all the opposite reasons.

The Nats would be called win-now instant-gratification opportunists who didn’t learn the lessons of the ’03 Cubs, who ruined both Kerry Wood (for a second time) and Mark Prior (at 22) in a pedal-to-the-metal run at a World Series that failed, in part, because a Wrigley Field fan tried to catch a foul ball at the worst moment. Davey Johnson knows about fans that touch flyballs. His ’96 Orioles still wonder what Jeffrey Maier cost them.

For this kind of crapshoot postseason format, do you trash the same medical protocol that worked so well with Zimmermann?

If Strasburg kept pitching, the “rage” wouldn’t stop with Cubs comparisons: “Didn’t the Nats learn the cost of impatience from the decade-long Redskins fiasco in their back yard?”

The Nats might also, and with cause, be called two-faced. They signed high-pick pitchers, such as Alex Meyer and Lucas Giolito, by saying, “Look how sensibly we treated Zimmermann and Strasburg — like family, not raw meat. We’ll do the same if you get hurt.” (Giolito already has.). So what would the reaction be if they set fire to those promises for a 15 percent chance to win the World Series?

What about business ethics? Strasburg may have a $300 million future. But you exploit his youthful enthusiasm? Is that how you treat employees?

The District built the Nats a $630 million park. Don’t the Lerners, as native Washingtonians, have a civic duty to maximize their resources so the Southeast Washington waterfront can be as big a success as the Verizon Center neighborhood? How many bigger resources do they have than Strasburg?

When you hear the endless Strasburg Shutdown muttering, remember that if the Nats had made the opposite decision, the criticism would have been just as loud.

But it would have been justified.

Instead, save your attention for what matters: watching the birth of a formidable franchise. Listen for that “whack-O,” team code for one of Davey’s hitting tips.

That’s how this whole season has felt: wonderfully whack-O. But it’s not. It’s real.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/­
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