Nationals sure could use Strasburg

(Editor’s note: This column was written after Game 2 of the NLDS between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals.)

Sorry, it’s time to utter the “S” word.

Heck, some of the Washington Nationals’ players are saying it, with very little prompting.

“If we had ‘Stras, we’d be up 2-0,” one player told me Tuesday.

Meaning, if Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg had started the first two games of the Division Series for the Nationals, the team would be leading the St. Louis Cardinals, two games to none.

Instead, the series is tied at one game apiece as it moves to Nationals Park, where all of the remaining games will be played, if necessary.

Of course, no one can say for sure what might have happened if Strasburg had pitched, just as no one can say for sure that the Nationals chose the right course by shutting him down after his Sept. 7 start.

The downside, though, is now frighteningly clear.

Ask the Texas Rangers. Ask any team to experience disappointment in October. The opportunity to win a World Series often is fleeting. And the emptiness that occurs when a triumphant regular season ends in a stunning postseason defeat is an emptiness that resonates for a long time.

The Nationals finished with 98 wins, most in the majors. If they lose this series — the first postseason series in Washington since 1933 — the questions about the Strasburg Shutdown will only grow more pointed, not only from outside the organization, but also from within the Nats’ own clubhouse.

The players aren’t about to go on the record with their dissent and create a distraction in the middle of the playoffs. But they are as divided about the decision as the rest of us, have been from the start. And it’s not just veterans who are frustrated with the move, it’s younger players, too.

Not that the clubhouse sentiment is unanimous: Some Nats admire general manager Mike Rizzo for taking a long-term view and “sticking to his guns” in trying to protect Strasburg.

One of those players, though, acknowledges that only a World Series title will shut down the debate over The Shutdown.

“We’ve got to win it,” that player said. “We’ve got to win it to make it go away.”

The Nats didn’t need long to discover how difficult that mission will be.

Their first opponent is the defending World Series champion. And their vaunted rotation, without the mighty Strasburg, suddenly looks less than imposing.

Gonzalez was jittery in Game 1, walking seven. Jordan Zimmermann was dismal in Game 2, lasting three innings. Next comes Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, who — in a pair of late-September starts against the Cardinals in St. Louis — combined to allow 16 runs (11 earned) in 3-2/3 innings.

Such numbers mean only so much — “at this point, what you’ve done in the regular season, it’s nonexistent,” Jackson said Tuesday. Then again, the Cardinals’ next two starters are Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse. The matchups — on paper — would appear to favor St. Louis, at least until Gonzalez faces Adam Wainwright in Game 5, if necessary.

Would Strasburg have made a difference? Again, no one can say for sure. But to yet another Nationals player, the answer was obvious.

“He would have lengthened out our rotation to the point where teams can’t stay with us,” that player said.

Still, most people understand why the Nationals capped Strasburg at 159-1/3 innings when he had thrown only 44-1/3 the previous season, his first coming off Tommy John surgery.

While some old-school types rankle at any arbitrary innings limit, it stands to reason that allowing Strasburg to take a massive jump would have jeopardized the long-term health of his arm.

My beef with the Nats — and the beef shared by many rival executives and some of the team’s own players — is that the club designed a plan for Strasburg and refused to deviate from it, insisting that there was No Other Way.

That was simply not the case.

The Braves found another way for their own Tommy John success story, righty Kris Medlen, allotting him roughly the same number of innings as Strasburg but limiting his workload by using him as a reliever until July 31.

Strasburg is a different animal, the former No. 1 pick in the draft, a pitcher the Nats wanted to develop as a starter, and only a starter.

Well, they could have preserved him for the postseason by bringing him along slowly, delaying his 2012 debut until say, May 1. They also could have built “breathers” into his schedule, buying time by spacing out his innings.

They chose neither course.

The Nationals contended that briefly shutting down Strasburg and starting him up again would have increased the strain on his arm. Yet, teams rarely mind when a pitcher misses a short amount of time with say, a minor leg injury, knowing it will freshen his arm in the middle of the 162-game grind.

As for the the Nats’ decision to include Strasburg in their Opening Day rotation, I’ve got a simple response to those who say that club officials could not have known that the team would contend all season.


During my first visit to Nationals’ camp in late February, manager Davey Johnson greeted me by saying, “I don’t think it’s a secret that we’re going to be pretty good.”

Maybe the Nats wouldn’t have gotten off to an 18-9 start if they had held off on Strasburg; the team went 5-1 in his starts during that stretch. But by manipulating Strasburg’s schedule, the Nats could have ensured that he would be available in October, when the game matters most.

Instead, the best pitcher in this series is confined to the dugout, reduced to a cheerleader.

Strasburg, in his next-to-last start, pitched six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Sept. 2, striking out nine, allowing two hits, walking none.

I’m thinking it. Some of the Nats are thinking it. A whole lot of people are thinking it.

The Nationals sure could use that guy now.