Reporting David Elfin
Since the Nats won’t pull Stephen Strasburg from the rotation now and bring him back in postseason which would seem the logical choice, I’m of two minds on his upcoming shutdown.
Strasburg is a terrific pitcher without whom the Nats might lose Washington’s best chance at a World Series title since the Senators’ last played in the Fall Classic in 1933. On the other hand, Strasburg just turned 24 and is less than two years removed from major elbow surgery, whose post-operative regimen calls for very careful handling which is why Nats general manager Mike Rizzo plans to end his ace’s season after another 30 innings or so.
For all his tough talk about no one influencing him to change his plans, Rizzo has to be tempted to reverse course. Not even the GM figured the Nats would be 76-46 and in control of the National League East three weeks or so ahead of the planned shutdown. When Rizzo pulled the plug last Aug. 29 on Strasburg’s rotation mate Jordan Zimmermann, who had undergone the same surgery a year earlier, Washington was just hoping to finish with a winning record.
Sure, the Nats added All-Star left hander Gio Gonzalez during the offseason, but they are well ahead of schedule when it comes to being a serious contender. When outfielder Michael Morse, their best player in 2011, was sidelined with a serious muscle injury for more than two months and closer Drew Storen for three before this season even started, there seemed no way that the guys with the curly W’s on their caps would surge to be where they are now. After all, Washington finished eight and a half games behind Atlanta and a whopping 21 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East last season.
Losing catcher Wilson Ramos for the year in May and playing without right fielder Jayson Werth, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond for extended periods could also have been killer blows, but the Nats have baseball’s best record with 40 games to go.
By the time that Cy Young candidate Strasburg (14-5, 2.91 earned run average, 173-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio) is de-activated, Washington will have maybe 20 games left and be close to clinching a playoff berth and a division title.
Manager Davey Johnson’s pitching staff would still be among baseball’s best without Strasburg. Zimmermann (2.54 ERA), Gonzalez (Nats-record 16 victories), Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler have a 39-26 record, 3.16 ERA and a 473-166 strikeout-walk ratio. That doesn’t rank with Cleveland’s Hall of Fame-studded mid-1950s rotation of Feller-Lemon-Wynn-Garcia or the 2011 Phillies’ Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt quartet, but it’s a pretty strong group with which to battle it out in postseason.
And that’s not even mentioning the bullpen in which 2012 closer Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus and Tom Gorzelanny have ranged from unhittable to merely solid.
Having been a kid when the Senators left town and the Redskins lost Super Bowl VII in their only title game appearance from 1946-81, I understand the urge to keep Strasburg going when it could mean the Nats’ only shot at a championship. I was thrilled when the Bullets won it all in 1978, never thinking that 34 years later I would still be waiting for a repeat. Caps fans whose memories go back as far as the 1998 Stanley Cup finals know the agony of waiting for a second chance.
Maybe this magical summer will be the Nats’ only moment in the sun. The Red Sox came within a strike of winning the World Series in 1986 – to Johnson’s Mets — and didn’t get back for another 18 years.
After watching sports for 45 years and covering them professionally for 30, I know plenty, but when it comes to injuries, I go with the medical experts. I’ve been around countless NFL players who wanted a second opinion after talking to the team doctor. So if Rizzo and the Nats, who would love nothing more than to win the Series, are willing to shut down perhaps their best asset to preserve his long-term future (he can’t be a free agent until 2017), who am I to argue?
The ridiculous Washington Post headline after Strasburg’s last start read, “The End Is Near.” Sorry. When it comes to Strasburg and the Nats, I’ll go with the view in the offices on South Capitol Street: “Only The Beginning.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin