Reporting David Elfin
A week ago, more than a few area sports fans were doing the Chicken Little thing. That’s the ancient tale you probably remember from your toddler days in which the protagonist thought the sky was falling.
With the Nats headed for Miami having been swept out of Philadelphia with a four-game losing streak, one might have thought that Stephen Strasburg had blown out his pitching arm again given the hysteria exhibited by some. That overreaction only got worse when Strasburg got pounded as Washington lost the opener of the two-game set with the Marlins.
Ross Detwiler soothed the spirits the following night in Miami and then the Nats returned home to take three of four from defending World champion St. Louis, the first two by a combined 18-1.
So even though Strasburg is now just two starts – Friday against the visiting Marlins and a week from tomorrow at the New York Mets – from being shut down for the year to protect an arm that’s perceived to be still fragile although he leads the National League with 195 strikeouts, the Nats are more than just fine, thanks.
Yesterday’s 2-0 victory over the forlorn Chicago Cubs – they’ve been waiting 16 years longer than Washington for a World Series and they didn’t go without a team for 33 years like we did – guaranteed our first winning season since 1969. If the Nats go 18-10 the rest of the way, a slower pace than their current major league-leading .612 clip, they’ll win 100 games, something no Washington team has ever achieved.
Considering that the Nats face the Cubs, Marlins and Mets, who are a combined 53 games under .500, over the next nine days, they could be darn close to clinching a playoff berth by the time Strasburg throws his final pitch of the season on Sept. 12. And given Washington’s current 7-1/2 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East, a division title is very much in the offing as well.
All Strasburg’s shutdown will mean during the regular season is that John Lannan, a rotation mainstay from 2008-11 whose losing streak-snapping victory over the Braves on July 22 was a pivotal moment of this season, will take his turn against the wild card-contending Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 19, against lagging Milwaukee five days later and at St. Louis on Sept. 29.
The question is how losing Strasburg for postseason will affect the Nats’ chances of winning the World Series. Even though Jordan Zimmermann has been stellar almost all year and left hander Gio Gonzalez has more victories, Strasburg is Washington’s ace. His 2.94 earned run average is the best among baseball’s best rotation. He’s the Nats’ pitcher whom opponents least want to face.
And yet, like everyone in the rotation except Edwin Jackson, Strasburg is under 27 and has no playoff experience. Postseason pressure affects people differently. Non-descript former New York Yankees third baseman Bobby Brown is the career postseason leader in batting average while Ted Williams, maybe the best hitter of the last 75 years, batted just .200 in his lone World Series. Journeyman Don Larsen owns the only no-hitter in postseason history, a perfect game at that, while Bob Feller, probably baseball’s most dominant pitcher of the mid-20th century, had a 5.02 ERA in his lone Series.
If Washington wins the East and avoids the one-game wild card playoff, manager Davey Johnson would have to replace Strasburg with Detwiler (9-6, 3.15) or Jackson (7-7. 3.74) for no more than two starts in the NL Division Series. If the Nats advanced, Strasburg would miss two or three starts in the NL Championship Series and as many in the Series if they got that far.
All of that is more than a month away. For now, sit back and enjoy Strasburg’s final two starts of 2012, the best season by a Washington baseball team since FDR was a White House rookie 79 years ago.
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