Stephen Strasburg could have pitched longer — but opening day was not the time

Jason Reid
Columnist April 1, 2013

In the privacy of his office late Monday afternoon, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson chuckled about all those Stephen Strasburg questions from the media after a 2-0, season-opening victory over the Miami Marlins. Johnson figured some would disagree with his decision to remove the right-hander after seven strong innings. And he couldn’t have cared less.

“Now don’t you start in on me, too,” Johnson said playfully, moments after addressing the move during a news conference. “Hey, I know what some people say: ‘Why take him out?’ But since my first year managing, from Day 1, I’ve always believed in getting something positive [from young pitchers]. I wasn’t going to give it a chance to turn into something negative.”

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Makes sense to me.

Strasburg delivered exactly the type of opening day start the Nationals expected from their ace. He gave up three hits, struck out three and had no walks while overpowering Miami in an efficient, 80-pitch, 52-strike performance. During one stretch from the first through the seventh, Strasburg retired 19 in a row.

But the weather turned chilly. And Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo has assembled a bullpen that could be second to none in baseball. There was no good reason for Johnson to push Strasburg to the eighth or ninth. “He did what he had to do,” Johnson said of his ace. After Strasburg left the game, Tyler Clippard worked a scoreless eighth and new closer Rafael Soriano cruised to his first save.

Once again, though, the Nationals didn’t let Strasburg do enough, their critics would contend. Remember: It was only a season ago that Rizzo and Johnson were blasted, mostly anonymously, by their peers for the organization’s controversial decision to shut down Strasburg after 28 starts in his first full season following Tommy John surgery. To hear some tell it, the Nationals ruined the integrity of the game by playing it safe with a World Series appearance potentially at stake.

This season, the handcuffs are supposed to come off. Strasburg, the Nationals say, will be in it until the end, assuming he remains physically sound. Anyone who knows Rizzo and Johnson knows that’s not lip service. They’re both brutally honest. And nothing that happened against the Marlins is at odds with their public comments.

Because Strasburg has been so dominant when he’s healthy (he had 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings in 2012), it’s easy to forget he only has made 46 career starts, without a complete game, in parts of four seasons. He’s a once-in-a-generation pitcher and a front man for what could become baseball’s next dynasty.

At this point, however, he’s also still a 24-year-old pup — albeit one who throws fastballs in the high 90s, a changeup in the high 80s and, when he’s in a grove like he was Monday, is downright unfair to batters.

Even after getting into a jam in the seventh – the Marlins had runners on the corners with one out – Strasburg made a good pitch to get a fly ball, and the Marlins helped him out by foolishly running into an inning-ending double play. Strasburg could have gone back out for more, but it wasn’t the right moment to break through a barrier.

“I felt good,” he said. “If it wasn’t opening day and the first start of the year, it would have been a different story.”

That’s good news to his teammates. Although players understood management’s thinking for protecting Strasburg last season, they would always prefer to roll with a hard-throwing pitcher capable of shutting down any batting order.

As good as Strasburg was against the Marlins, he’ll get even better as he continues to develop throughout the season.

“For me and for my team, to see him [pitch] like that today, you just want him to stay healthy,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, who returned to the lineup after missing most of last season with a knee injury. “You know he has great stuff. You saw it today. But you know we’re not just thinking [about] today. We’re trying to win. Win a lot.”

Division titles aren’t won on opening day. And no matter how well teams play, pennants and World Series championship trophies aren’t handed out in the first week of the season. On Monday, the Nationals took one small step in a long process. They’ll be cool as long as Strasburg walks with them all season.

“For the first game, just get him going,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “He threw really well today. I mean, he was pretty lights out. Why push him just to push him? You’re going to make him throw a hundred pitches just to throw a hundred pitches? With our bullpen? That’s not what Davey does.”

This season, Johnson is counting on Strasburg to be a big part of his plans. “Will I let him go [further]? Absolutely,” Johnson said. “But it’s not just going to be [for show]. I’ve got a little experience doing this. So I think I’ll keep deciding when he’s coming out. Got that?”

Yep. Strasburg is getting closer to going longer. It’s just a matter of timing.

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