Posted October 10, 2012

Strasburg shutdown haunting Nationals in Division Series

Division Series, Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

Stephen Strasburg has only been able to watch as Washington’s season gets pushed to the brink. (AP)

Even before Edwin Jackson threw his first pitch on Wednesday afternoon, the second-guessing had already started —  and not just among the media and fans. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported an anonymous Nationals player telling him, “If we had ‘Stras, we’d be up 2-0,” referring to Stephen Strasburg. Washington’s 24-year-old ace was shut down following his Sept. 7 start due to an innings cap put in place by general manager Mike Rizzo out of concern for the pitcher’s workload in his first full season back from September 2010 Tommy John surgery. Instead of starting in the Division Series against the Cardinals, he’s a bystander, and he’ll remain that way for the rest of the season.

Would things have unfolded differently for the Nationals had Strasburg been available? It’s impossible to say, but the one constant from the D.C. upstarts in their first three postseason games has been shaky starting pitching. Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez walked seven hitters in five innings and was lucky to escape with just two runs allowed; the bullpen combined for four shutout innings while the Nationals rallied for two runs in the eighth to win. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann was tagged for five runs in three innings, setting off a 12-4 rout, and Jackson lasted five innings while allowing four runs — three via a home run by rookie Pete Kozma — in the team’s 8-0 loss on Wednesday. Together, that’s 11 runs allowed in 13 innings, with eight walks against 12 strikeouts. Even against a club like the 107-loss Astros, a team would be lucky to take two out of three behind such performances. Even if Strasburg had pitched and done well, such a performance against the battle-tested defending world champions might have been wasted by a Nationals team that hans’t gotten its own offense in gear, scoring just seven runs in three games, none on Wednesday.

It’s easy to believe that Strasburg would have fared better than his teammates have, particularly given that in his one start against the Cardinals on Sept. 2, he twirled six innings of two-hit shutout ball while striking out nine. After all, the only major difference between the Cardinals’ lineup in that start and the one they’ve fielded in the postseason thus far is the absence of catcher Yadier Molina, who received the day off against Strasburg. On the other hand, the Cardinals were amid one of their worst stretches of the season, winning just one series out of six — that against the Mets at home — and six games out of 19 from Aug. 27 through Sept. 16. The start was Strasburg’s second-to-last of the season, sandwiched between two less flattering turns against the Marlins in which he was battered for 12 runs (10 earned) in eight innings, and as part of a downward trend of reduced velocity that may have compromised his effectiveness in the second half.

If the Nationals can’t rally to overcome the Cardinals, the decision to shelve Strasburg will be debated until the sun crashes into the earth and ends life as we know it. Worse, nothing short of a world championship is likely to end the second-guessing, either inside the Nats’ clubhouse or out. Those with no stake in the future of a pitcher who stands to earn hundreds of millions of dollars if he stays healthy will declare themselves more knowledgable than Rizzo, the one man who has stood in the spotlight’s glare and taken ownership of the decision after extensive consultations with top doctors, sports medicine experts and baseball men.

Could the Nationals have handled Strasburg’s workload differently in order to preserve his availability for the playoffs? Absolutely. They could have thrown caution to the wind and ignored his innings limit even while minding his pitch counts and his stress levels, hoping he had enough in the tank to carry them through October. They could have kept him in extended spring training until May, ramping up his workload so that he could proceed through the season without interruption or controversy, though it’s doubtful that his replacement could have provided the 32 innings of 1.13 ERA ball that Strasburg gave the Nats in April, when the team kept pace with the Braves via a 14-8 start; their whole season might have come down to winning the wild-card play-in, and as the Braves showed, anything can happen there. They could have skipped a few turns along the way as the White Sox did with their ace, 23-year-old Chris Sale, a converted reliever who threw 192 innings in his first year as a starter, though a 4.22 ERA over his final nine starts and an early exit from final one on Sept. 29 amid his team’s late collapse don’t constitute a ringing endorsement of that strategy.

Or they could have stashed Strasburg on the disabled list in midseason with a real or exaggerated injury, though it wasn’t until late in the year that the team built up enough a division lead that remained above five games for any appreciable length of time. The cost over a short stretch via the step down from Strasburg to John Lannan wouldn’t have been more than a few runs, and they would have had their ace available for the playoffs. That said, one of Rizzo’s key concerns was the increased injury risk of such a scenario. As he told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program, “[E]very injury expert that we have spoken to [says] the effect of shutting a pitcher down and then ramping him back up and having him throw a full go is much more dangerous than having him pitch through the season and shutting him down.”

The Nationals will have to live with Rizzo’s decision, knowing that he made it in the long-term best interests of the franchise and their star. For all that they have accomplished this year by bringing playoff baseball back to Washington, D.C. for the first time in 79 years, they would do well not to let the decision define them — to stop relying on it as an excuse for why they’re down 2-games-to-1 against a team that won 10 fewer games in the regular season. Postseason baseball is difficult enough as it is without finger-pointing.

17 comments
alacranxxx
alacranxxx

The Nats had no idea they might need him so badly for the postseason.  In hindsight it sounds good to say they should have started his season in May, but it would have made little sens then.  Next season, if he's still on a leash, they'll have the benefit of the experience and might do it differently.

joshua.p.j.martin
joshua.p.j.martin

No, Teddy winning is haunting Nationals in Division Series. Idiots.

kidbookratings
kidbookratings

What are the odds Ken Rosenthal did not made that quote up?  I'd say about 1-billion-to-one.

Mark B1
Mark B1

Idiotic.

 

This column is utter nonsense. Strasburg pitched an average of six innings during the season and often went only five. He had a great year, but the Nationals won over 60% of their games he did not start. The bull pen today gave up four runs after the fifth while the offense scored zero all day. In Game 2, the bull pen gave up six runs. Strasburg (though he's a good hitter for a pitcher) can't make up for that.

 

Gonzalez and Zimmermann were often as dominant as Strasburg during the year (Gonzalez was definitely their #1 starter, even with Strasburg available) and Detwiler was strong down the stretch. Jackson's been pretty good all year. Strasburg got shelled in two of his final three starts before the shutdown. He's basically (if not actually) a rookie pitcher who had pitched more innings than he ever had in his life, and he was coming off major surgery. Also, he has zero innings of playoff experience. Who's to say he would have dominated, while the rest of the rotation, which dominated all year as well, has been less than dominant? Even if Strasburg pitched to his potential, how would that make up for the poor performance of the bull pen and the Nat's lack of offense?

 

I don't know the circumstances or context of the statement by the anonymous Nat who said they would be 2-0 with Strasburg, but maybe that would be the case anyway if he and his teammates had taken care of business and not worried about circumstances beyond their control. Zimmermann, for much of the year, pitched as well as and maybe even better than Strasburg but got weak run support.

 

I'm a Nats fan and a big Strasburg fan, but it's just delusional to think they were a shoe-in if they hadn't shut him down. The playoff meltdown aside (and we still have two games to redeem ourselves), there are so many great story lines about this team and the season they've had. I'm sick of this one.

RichardKeller
RichardKeller

I would have liked to see the Nationals win, but have Harper contribute absolutely nothing, thus keeping that watermelon of a head from getting bigger.  Basically have the Nats win IN SPITE of Harper.  Well, at least I got one of my wishes {way to go Mr. 1 for 16}  Ack....ackkkk!

Lyle F
Lyle F

I said after the season ended, it was time to bring him back. I understand trying to limit his innings, but come on boys, this is what you play for. They may never get back to the post-season. You play your best to beat the best.

ThePDFGhost
ThePDFGhost

Nice to see the Nationals giving up already. Yes it would be great to have Strasburg, but he's not going to pitch, so just play.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @PaulMitchell Stephen Strasburg did not make the decision to sit himself down.  It has only been talked about for, oh, months now.  Your attention span seems a bit short.

Mark B1
Mark B1

I should have said the headline and some sentiments expressed by others in the column are nonsense. The column itself seems a little wishy-washy about the shutdown. 

Mark B1
Mark B1

 @RichardKeller Don't understand the rabid hatred for this 19-year-old. He plays hard every minute of every game, and by all accounts has been a good teammate and is popular in the Nat's clubhouse. Are you saying he has a big head based on popular wisdom and his reputation or something you've actually seen?

Mark B1
Mark B1

 @Lyle F Of course they'll get back to the post season. Strasburg will be back next year, so the Nats obviously will go 162-0 and then breeze through the playoffs and World Series.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

 @Mark B1  @RichardKeller Spot on.  It seems as if there are a lot of supposed adults who simply cannot stomach the thought of a teenager finding success in the major leagues, and they get to display their envy in anonymous rants.  Jealousy can be an amusing thing.

RichardKeller
RichardKeller

 @JoeCabot  @Mark B1   I have no issues with him playing well as a teenager.  I found a distaste for him after he went 1-4 in a game and complained about the lousy .288 he was hitting.  It's like Tiger Woods when he misses a 50-foot putt and acts like he can't believe he missed it.  OK, you're good, we get it, but you need to get over yourself a little.  Think about it.  BTW, where did Harper end the season?  Batting .270?  Bet he'd be happy with that .288 now, huh?  Also, he's not the first or best 19-year-old that's ever played.  He's only being treated like he's a phenom because he was hitting 500 HRs at the age of 15 or 16.