For the record, I was on board with GM Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 (though as a season ticket holder who experienced the soaring high of Werth’s Game 4 home run and the crushing disappointment the very next day, I’ll admit I wasn’t especially happy about it). Not only was Strasburg coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his 160 innings pitched was ALREADY nearly 40 more than he had thrown in any season as a professional. Stras was also showing signs of wearing down as September rolled around that year–in his last three starts he posted an ERA of 6.43.
Would the Nats have beaten the Cardinals has Stras been in the rotation? Well, say he wins Game 1, and then Game 2 follows the same script–Gio walks the whole stadium but the Nats somehow pull out a win. Then Z-nn and Jackson would have had their own bad outings in Games 3 & 4 instead of Games 2 & 3 (Detwiler would have been in the pen), so the series likely would have gone to Game 5 anyway. Is a way-overextended Stras then better able than Gio was to hold the Cardinals down after getting the early 6-0 lead? Does Z-nn throw smoke in the 7th inning as he did in 7th inning of Game 4 of the real series? Does that then mean Clippard and Storen (or maybe even somebody else) get to protect a 7-1 lead instead of a 7-4 lead, resulting in an easy win instead of a crushing defeat? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that the Nats chose not to risk re-injuring Strasburg, and subsequently he was available to be a horse this year, starting 33 games so far and throwing 209 innings already. His 235 Ks lead the NL and his recent dominance (1.34 ERA, 33 Ks, 2 BBs in his last 5 starts), suggest an evolving ace who could match Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright pitch for pitch in the NLCS, assuming the Nats reach the second round of the playoffs.
The haters claimed that championship chances come along so rarely that a team needs to go “all in” every time one comes along. As it has turned out, the championship “window” for this current group of Nats’ players is likely to be framed at 2012-2015 before free agency defections begin to force some retooling (not to say they won’t still have enough talent to at least contend in Strasburg’s “contract season” of 2016, assuming he’s not traded). They are now in year 3 of that window and so far have two divisional titles to show for it (which, BTW, is one more outright division title than the franchise had won its first 42 years of existence). The shutdown haters piled on last year when the team missed the playoffs, but as October 2014 approaches the Nats are right where GM Mike Rizzo likely figured they would be when he made the decision to protect his most important asset two years ago–not only division title winners, but a favorite to get to the World Series.
Though it still isn’t really fair, I believe nothing short of a World Series appearance with Strasburg having a dominant postseason run will finally quiet those critics down. And if the Nats win it all, Rizzo would then be within his rights to go around to every sportswriter and teevee shouting head who dog piled on him for the shutdown and yell, “in your FACE!”
Tomorrow I’m going to discuss two other teams who soon could possibly face the very same dilemma the Nats did in 2012. If so, will the “debate” be so heated then?