“You go win the World Series, and everybody starts to write you off for next year. So I think that’s pouring gas on the fire for me,” Strasburg said, looking out at kindred spirit Max Scherzer in his news conference audience. “There’s no stopping us now.”
There it is — right or wrong. The Nats don’t think they’ve done the impossible, even though their championship may be the most unlikely — taking spring to autumn and all of October into account — in baseball history. Instead, they think they finally got over the postseason hump to a place they’ve felt comfortable for years: among Major League Baseball’s best, year after year, and planning to stay there.
And they know exactly why, too.
The World Series champs are not difficult to analyze. They always say their plan is to build on elite starting pitching. In response, baseball yawns. Old idea. But the Nats make it work. In the five years they have made the playoffs since 2012, they have finished second, first, second, fourth and second in starting pitching ERA.
In the years when they merely had winning records but missed October, they were seventh, seventh and 13th. Why have there been no losing years? Because even when the starting pitching hasn’t been at its best, it has still been very good.
Nothing in baseball is more basic than Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo saying: “With starting pitching, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is.”
Over time, a self-reinforcing pitching culture can develop, with the old teaching the young and the young, as they mature, allowing the vets to excel in a slightly lessened role. The bullpen between starts and the dugout during games become continuing-education classes. Excellence can question, and even challenge, excellence — to everyone’s benefit.
“[As a rookie in 2010,] I was just so young and dumb,” Strasburg said, recalling his 14-strikeout debut. Since then, especially after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has had to learn, reinvent and evolve.
“Having a great support system here is key,” he said. “Having Max here, Aníbal Sánchez that we brought this year, [Patrick] Corbin, [pitching coach] Paul Menhart — the group of people that I’m able to be around helps me focus on what I can do to continue to be successful.”
With Corbin, Strasburg and Scherzer now 30, 31 and 35, maintaining durability is essential if the Nats are to justify three contracts worth a combined $595 million. Talk about a concentrated sector bet.
So far, it has worked. And perhaps the greatest ancillary benefit of signing Scherzer five years ago was the impact of his mound presence and attacking attitude on Strasburg — especially in the playoffs.
“Maxie coming in here with all the [Cy Young Award] hardware, it was a little eye-opening for me,” Strasburg said. “Our personalities are very different. I’m very quiet. . . . He is fearless. There are certain times where I have a tendency, not to shy away from certain hitters, but that [Scherzer] aggressiveness that I’ve watched over these years — hey, I don’t really care what happens, as long as I’m aggressive.”
To illustrate his Maxification, Strasburg fanned the side in the sixth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers after the leadoff man singled and stole second base. That held the Nationals’ deficit at 3-1 — and probably saved the game and the season.
In Game 6 of the World Series, with men on second and third and one out, the Nats leading 3-2 in the fifth inning, he attacked José Altuve and fanned him on three pitches. If there is such a thing as competitive courage by osmosis, that’s it.
The Nats still have a lot to do this winter — especially pursuing former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who hit 37 homers in Atlanta in 2019, to take over third base from Anthony Rendon, who apparently wasn’t as happy as we thought in D.C.
It’s surprising what $245 million will do to encourage a fellow to say what he has really been thinking. For Strasburg, that was this: “Throughout my career there’s been some ups and downs, but the [team] has supported me throughout it all. That’s hard to come by in this game.”
For Rendon, wearing his new red Los Angeles Angels hat a few days ago, the words were a bit more unexpected. He didn’t want to sign with the Dodgers because “the Hollywood lifestyle . . . didn’t seem like it would be a fit for us as a family.” But the Angels in Orange County reflected a much different culture that Tony said was in line with his family values.
Then, asked why he didn’t come to the White House after the Nats won the World Series, Rendon said: “I wanted to go so bad. Obviously, being from Texas, I think you guys know which views we lean toward.”
So, after years of wondering whether the devout, reticent Rendon really wanted to stay in D.C., we find out Texas (with the Rangers) or the Angels were his preferences for a culture that was congenial to him.
That’s good to know and makes for a clean break with appreciation on both sides and a warm return someday. Unlike the Bryce Harper departure, Nats fans don’t need to parse the present value of deferred money to frame their feelings. The Nats have Strasburg — with $80 million in deferred money to help future payrolls — rather than wondering whether, even at a full $245 million, Rendon would have picked the 93-69 Nats over the 72-90 Angels.
While the Nats still must figure out how to improve their bullpen, whether to plan for rookie Carter Kieboom to take over second or third base, how to bring back core leaders in platoon roles and whether Donaldson is in their future, there is a sense that they have already finished their biggest and most central offseason business.
Strasburg (seven more years), Corbin (five), Scherzer (two) and Sánchez (one) will be back. Young starters Joe Ross, Austin Voth and Erick Fedde ended the season with their stock on the rise. And, although the Nats don’t say it, the money not spent on Rendon is a roster-flexibility insurance policy in case that lifeline of starting pitching needs to be replenished someday.
At Nationals Park, hitters sometimes come and go. But, so far, the starting pitchers that the Nats prize most have either come in trade, signed as free agents or stayed.
No formula is foolproof. And more pitching arms can age or get hurt, all in a short time, than can be replenished. But in a fickle sport, there is no better foundation than the one the Nationals have chosen to build upon. Strasburg now epitomizes that tradition. “It’s great that I’m going to be a National for life,” he said.
Go on, admit it: You never thought you would see the day — years ago, when Strasburg lost his poise or had another injury — when he would be a growing October legend, an eloquent and confident vet, the reigning NL leader in wins and innings, a World Series champion and a perfectly sensible choice to sign through what would be his 17th season as a National.
“Seventeen,” Strasburg said. He sounded as though he loved the number.
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