Amidst the stunned silence in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Friday night, the question hung in the air. They knew it would come if this day ever did. That the minute the Nationals’ season ended in anything other than a World Series victory their loss would be pointed back to one, singular fact. Fair or not.
The Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg, a precaution they believed to be the best medical course in his continued rehab from Tommy John surgery and his progression as a young pitcher, left them with only the unknown.
Would things have been different if Strasburg had been the man pitching Games 1 & 5 of their National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals? Would their postseason dreams have lived on?
The Nationals chose not to ponder the question, only to look forward.
“I’m not going to think about it,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, the man whose taken a considerable amount of heat for the decision to protect his prized ace much the way he did with Jordan Zimmermann in 2011 but with far more scrutiny.
“We had a plan in mind. It was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We’ll take the criticism as it comes, but we have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals. And we think we did.”
It was without doubt the most talked about personnel decision this baseball season but even as the debate raged, Rizzo never once wavered. And even Strasburg, eventually, came to accept his spectator role even if he didn’t wholly agree with it.
Friday night, as the Nationals began the process of packing up a clubhouse and mentally unpacking a season, they brushed off the topic as moot. They won 98 games this season and not all of them were because they had Strasburg in their rotation.
“Stephen did great for us, and everyone knew what the situation was,” said right-hander Tyler Clippard. “And there’s not a guy in this clubhouse that thought any differently of, ‘Oh, what if this, what if that?’ That was not in our control. We weren’t worried about it.
“Not a guy in this clubhouse was worried about it – I know I wasn’t. And we showed to everyone that we had the personnel without Stephen in the playoffs to get it done. At the end of the day, it didn’t happen, but we showed we were good enough.”
Their starting pitchers had a 5.25 ERA in the playoffs, but their offense also averaged 3.2 runs per game in the Division Series and was anemic through the first four games. The Nationals didn’t perform up to the standard they’d set in nearly any facet of the game during the postseason, not just in the Games Strasburg would’ve pitched.
Still, the debate will likely rage on. Strasburg is planning to come to spring training in February to prepare to throw 200-plus innings and pitch deep in the playoffs for his team. He’s planning to take his spot back atop the rotation with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann set to fall in behind him.
The question of how his talents might’ve affected the 2012 playoffs is one that will never be answered.
“It’s irrelevant now, it really is,” said veteran Mark DeRosa. “It shouldn’t even be written about. Because who knows? Who’s to say he doesn’t go out and throw no-hitters and who’s to say he doesn’t go out and get hit around? You’ll never know. I don’t even like to worry about it.
“We had the right guy on the mound at the right time (in Drew Storen). We had the lead. We had a chance to close it down and didn’t get it done against a great team. Defending World Series Champions. I heard Chase Utley say this when (the Giants) faced (the Phillies) in 2010 NLCS. ‘You want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.’ And we didn’t.”