The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals bet big on their veteran aces — and won. They might finally be paying the price.

Stephen Strasburg, shown in his first start of the season this month, went on the 10-day IL on Sunday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Stephen Strasburg, shown in his first start of the season this month, went on the 10-day IL on Sunday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Quick, panic in the streets! On South Capitol Street, anyway!

Stephen Strasburg went on the 10-day injured list Sunday morning. In Washington, that’s like the battleship from a hostile galaxy centering itself over Nationals Park.

There is “no timetable for his return but hopefully soon,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. After a recent bullpen session, Strasburg said he felt “beat up” and his shoulder “tight.” An MRI exam showed mild inflammation. But every hurricane starts as a teensy-weensy tropical depression.

“[The MRI] doesn’t look bad. But then I’m not a doctor,” said Martinez, who does stand-up sitting down. “He’s such an important part of our team. . . . The biggest thing is him missing [almost all of] last year. . . . We want to get him right. This is all about taking care of Stephen.”

So don’t worry, the Nats say. Yes, he got pounded in his last start and threw only 90 mph. But it’s a long season. After Strasburg pitched only five innings in 2020, the Nats planned extra rest for him this season, anyway, “though not this soon,” Martinez said without irony.

Please. The Hindenburg’s problem was just static electricity. Then a spark. Then “Oh, the humanity.”

Last year, Strasburg’s season was cut short by carpal tunnel syndrome. That early exit by the 2019 World Series MVP doomed the 60-game campaign practically at its inception.

What next? This month, the Nats already celebrated Opening Day without nine of their 26 players because of positive coronavirus tests and related protocols.

On Sunday, the Nats’ starter in a 5-2 loss to Arizona was Paolo Espino, who allowed only two runs in 4⅓ innings — six fewer runs than Strasburg in his most recent start. Espino wasn’t the problem. But he sure was a symbol. There are emergency starters who are 34 years old. And desperation hurlers who have never won an MLB game. But is Espino the first to be both?

Martinez, asked about future landmarks on the road to a Strasburg return in the coming days, replied, “Right now, I’m taking care of the seconds.”

Oh, it gets better. Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Patrick Corbin, has an ERA of 21.32, which means — not just in his case but with any pitcher — that he might be covering up an injury or simply unaware of one. In his most recent start Thursday, he allowed 10 runs, four walks, two hit batters and three homers in two innings. Luckily, there was no mascot to bean.

At this point, with all due respect to every fan’s inalienable right to panic in April, let’s take a giant step backward for perspective.

Corbin says he feels normal. On Thursday, he seemed to be rushing his delivery, which ruins command, cuts velocity and reduces spin rate. But what do I know? “Corbin threw really well between starts. We were slowing him down,” said Martinez, who does know. “He pounded the strike zone. His slider was sharp.”

Can we wait a couple of days or maybe a month before we write obits on $140 million deals? It takes time for out-of-sync pitchers to find their flaw. Corbin was thrown into quarantine because of his proximity to a teammate who tested positive. Maybe the guy just sat next to the wrong person on a plane back from Florida.

There will be plenty of time for sackcloth if either Strasburg or Corbin turns out to be seriously injured. But fearing it might happen does not make it so.

Besides, all this fretting about Nats pitchers with huge salaries has been going on for seven years. Fearing the worst has — most of the time — been wrong, wrong, wrong.

When the Nats signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract, Corbin to a six-year deal and Strasburg to a new seven-year deal (on top of the $106 million they already had paid him), they were 30, 29 and 31 years old, respectively. Conventional wisdom said such deals at such ages for pitchers were very risky or just doomed.

It’s inaccurate to view any one of these contracts separately from the others because they are core to the Nationals’ whole theory of team construction. You can’t expect every pitcher in every year over 20 seasons’ worth of big-dollar deals to be healthy or excellent. You judge the whole megillah. Even Strasburg’s previous seven-year extension in 2016 at age 28 was considered risky given his injury history. And dicey-delivery Scherzer lingered on the free agent market in January 2015 until the Nats decided $210 million was, to their way of thinking, almost cheap.

All four Nats deals, including Strasburg twice, caught extra flack because they snubbed modern analytics, which think 30 needs life support and order lilies at 35.

How’s it going? So far, the Nats have two Cy Young Awards, two no-hitters and a 300-strikeout season from Scherzer. Since 2016, when he signed his first big deal in midseason, Strasburg is 58-23, led the NL in wins and innings in 2019 and then was World Series MVP. Scherzer and Strasburg were vital to NL East titles in 2016 and 2017. Who was the winning pitcher in both the Nats’ NL pennant clincher and Game 7 of the World Series in 2019? Corbin won both.

They say that “Flags Fly Forever.” And thus they justify almost anything that provides one because in a 30-team sport a city is due only one title per generation.

Maybe that’s all you get for the more than $650 million that the Nats ultimately will pay their Big Three.

Maybe it’s about time that the Nats’ luck on the health of veteran star pitchers runs out. Maybe Strasburg’s wrist last year and Corbin’s poor numbers since his double duty in October 2019 were the start.

But at this precarious moment, the Nats sure hope not.

Right now, the Nats face an early crisis, to be sure. Workhorse reliever Wander Suero suffered a strained oblique Saturday; average lost time for such an injury: about 26 days. Reliever Will Harris is not quite back from injury. Starter Jon Lester, after his coronavirus-related absence, is getting closer.

Luckily, in their four most recent starts, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde have allowed two runs total. But soon Austin Voth may join them in the rotation. This defines being stretched thinner than thin.

For seven years, since the day they signed Scherzer, the Nats have been banking on monstrously long contracts to pitchers their front office, scouts and number crunchers think can both prosper and last.

And it has mostly paid off — big. In wins and memories.

With Corbin signed through 2024, Strasburg signed through 2026 and Scherzer free to leave this fall, what we’re watching now is not just the start of a season.

It may be the prelude to the next several seasons.

The Nats have walked a tightrope for years. If Strasburg, Corbin and the team itself can find patient ways to keep them both healthy — not every start in every season but most of the time — the fun may continue.

If not, it is a long way down.

Read more on the Nationals:

Asdrúbal Cabrera, a reminder of ways big and small to win a World Series, returns to Washington

Boswell: Should the Nationals be worried about their Big Three starters? Stay tuned.

Senate, a classic D.C. beer, is on tap at Nationals Park this season