The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Rizzo stands behind Stephen Strasburg shutdown as players say it wasn’t on their minds

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Stephen Strasburg moved through the Nationals clubhouse like the rest of his teammates late Friday night, with soft steps and sunken eyes. Unlike most of them, he never set foot on the field in the Nationals’ wrenching NLDS loss to the Cardinals.

Many fans and observers will live with the gnawing doubt that the series would have been different if Strasburg, the Nationals’ ace, had pitched. Instead, General Manager Mike Rizzo decided to shut him down as a measure of protection as he pitched his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Rizzo steeled himself for that and didn’t look back, just as at peace with the decision now as he was when he first made it in September 2011.

“I’m not going to think about it, no,” Rizzo said. “We had a plan in mind. It was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We’ll take the criticism as it comes. We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”

In recent weeks, Strasburg himself had started to accept the decision. Inside the clubhouse, at least on the record in the aftermath of their brutal Game 5 loss, players revealed no angst about the Nationals keeping Strasburg in the dugout for the final three weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.

“Stephen did great for us,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “And everyone knew what the situation was. And there’s not a guy in this clubhouse that thought any differently of, ‘Oh, what if this? What if that?’ That was not in our control. And we’re not worried about it. Not a guy in this clubhouse was worried about it. I know I wasn’t. And we showed to everyone that we had the personnel without Stephen in the playoffs to get it done. At the end of the day, it didn’t happen. But we showed we were good enough.”

In the NLDS, Nationals starters posted a 5.25 ERA, the highest of any team in the playoffs. In Game 5, a game that Strasburg in theory would have pitched, Gio Gonzalez was given a 6-0 lead after three innings and lasted only five, exiting after yielding three runs.

“Hindsight, because we had some starters struggle, you can say it would have been different,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I think you guys got a good feel when it happened what the guys were thinking. We were fine with it. In a sense, we appreciated that Rizzo stuck to his guns – he said he was going to shut him down and did it.

“Of course we’d love to have him. Who wouldn’t? There’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t want him in the postseason rotation. But they’re looking out for him. We had the horses to do it. We had the guys to do it without Stras. It’s just one of those things.”

Would Strasburg had made an impact in a perfect world, if healthy and if he had somehow bucked the trend of his final starts and not worn down? For the Nationals players, the question was moot.

“It’s irrelevant now,” said veteran Mark DeRosa, who was not active for the NLDS but remained a clubhouse leader. “It really is. It shouldn’t even be written about. Who knows? Who’s to say he doesn’t go out and throw no hitters? Who’s to say he doesn’t get hit around? You’ll never know. We had the right guy on the mound at the right time. We had the lead. We had a chance to close it down and didn’t get it done against a great team.”