The Washington Nationals, who’ve rocketed up baseball’s hierarchy at warp speed all season, will now face another in a long series of challenges, tests that will continue through September, into October and on to future years. No one of them will be definitive. But each will examine a different part of the club’s talent, psyche, resilience and leadership.
The Nats’ biggest loss will be the deletion of Stephen Strasburg’s presence, with his long name barely crossing the broad back of his jersey, as well as his ability to intimidate any team when he is sharp. As a result, the team’s intangibles will be tested: its confidence, cohesion and just plain stubbornness. In a season full of injuries, can they view this subtraction as no tougher than others they’ve ignored to post Major League Baseball’s best record?
At least for this year, when his ERA is currently only third-best on his own stellar rotation, Strasburg’s biggest contribution was perhaps his 95.7-mph symbolism, an announcement that the Nats were part of baseball’s foreseeable future, not just a one-summer fluke.
For general high-quality starting pitching, the Nats really have no objective reason to falter. When the shutdown was announced Saturday morning, Strasburg had the fifth (and worst) ERA in the rotation whether measured since May 15th (3.75) or over the quintet’s last 10 starts each (4.14). Recent Strasburg was hardly vintage Strasburg, leaving little room for critics of the Nats’ conservative medical protocol to continue braying.
Even though the Nats have a 67-44 record (.604) in games that Strasburg did not start, the 24-year-old right-hander clearly mourns the end of his season. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it,” said Strasburg who called his morning meeting with General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson a “shocking” experience.
“When that’s all you hear, it’s hard for it not to bother you,” said Strasburg, who’d told Johnson he’d had trouble sleeping, worrying that he was letting down his teammates. “It is what it is. It sucks. I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team. . . . It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.”
The Nats have John Lannan, a solid, established lefty, to take Strasburg’s last four regular season starts. In the playoffs, no team uses more than four starters and the Nats certainly have them. Nonetheless, baseball causality — direct, indirect or clubhouse mystical — is impossible to graph. When the Nats got word last Sunday that Strasburg would have two more starts, they responded — that is, if there was any connection at all — by bludgeoning the Cubs for four straight wins, part of eight wins in nine games.
After the shutdown was accelerated on Saturday, the Nats played a total-flub-a-dub game in the early innings with ugly errors by Adam LaRoche and Zimmerman leading to three unearned runs. But by nightfall, they’d seldom had a more cheerful clubhouse. “It’s all another hurdle, just like it’s been all year,” said Storen. “We’ll miss him every five days, but we’ll go on. Oh, and he’ll get [competitive] fuel from this and use it next year.”
Though the Nats announced their news before Saturday’s game, the decision was made within minutes of Friday’s loss in which Strasburg looked distracted while warming up, started badly, got worse and eventually seemed dejected.
“Davey and I talked about it right after the game when I went into his office, you know, like I always do, when I go right in and yell at him,” said Rizzo, joking about their all-but-forgotten “You come down and manage the team” spat less than two weeks ago. “We decided then. He finished my thoughts. It was really a fairly easy decision.”
As the season lengthened, Strasburg resembled many other young pitchers in their first full season after recovering from Tommy John surgery; like Jordan Zimmermann last year, he has been more inconsistent as the summer progressed, with his perfect mechanics and brilliant results obvious in one game, only to be followed by a fall-off-the-mound follow-through and (by his standard) terrible command of any pitch in his next start.
Now, both have been shut down with almost identical innings and ERA, 161.1 and 3.18 for Zimmermann in 2011, who has improved this year, and 159.1 and 3.16 for Strasburg.
Strasburg has nothing to feel bad about, not an iota’s worth. He is a man under command, following orders and thus, putting his team first.
“Stephen is going to have to accept it,” Rizzo said. “He’s had a terrific season. There are going to be a lot of bright and happy days ahead of us watching him pitch.”
None of them, however, will be this year. How much or little that matters will be up to the remainder of the Nats.
One day down. “That was fun,” Johnson said. Lots more to go.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/