DALY: Nationals’ winning hand has an ace

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Patience can be a hard sell in sports. There’s always the fear of a window closing, of somebody’s shelf life expiring. Seize the day, that’s the ticket, because who knows what tomorrow will bring — outside of the Mayans, maybe?

That’s why, for some Washington Nationals fans, the eventual shutting down of Stephen Strasburg this season is so difficult to accept. The Nats, after all, have the best record in the National League and easily could make a deep playoff run. And a D.C. team, I’ll just remind you, hasn’t been in the World Series since 1933 and hasn’t won it since ‘24.

Eighty-eight years! That’s even longer than Jamie Moyer’s career.

But the Nationals are trying to think long term because, well, that’s what’s helped them get where they are. Rather than re-sign thirtysomething Alfonso Soriano after a 46-homer season, they took the compensatory draft picks and turned one of them into Jordan Zimmermann, who’s looking more like a No. 1 starter every day. When Ian Desmond went through some growing pains the past two years, they stuck with him — and now he’s an All-Star shortstop.

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This being Stephen Strasburg’s first “full” season since his Tommy John surgery, ... more >

The same strategy is being applied to Strasburg. This being his first “full” season after Tommy John surgery, the Nats intend to unplug him in early September, when he reaches 160 innings (or thereabouts). No sense in pushing him too hard too soon, the organization feels, especially since he’s one of the game’s premier young talents. Besides, with Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann pitching they way they are — and with No. 4 man Edwin Jackson having a fair amount of postseason experience — who’s to say the club still can’t make some noise in the playoffs?

But it’s a strange set of circumstances, you have to admit. A year ago, when the Nationals ended Zimmermann’s season early because he was coming off the same cut-and-paste procedure, nobody much minded because the team wasn’t going anywhere. Now, though, there’s the sense that an opportunity might be lost — one that doesn’t come along every season. But beyond that, has any serious contender ever voluntarily benched an ace pitcher down the stretch for precautionary reasons? That’s the kind of history you never want to make.

The Nats are prepared to do it, though, and it’s easy to second-guess them if you want. You can point out that Tommy John, The Man himself, threw 207 innings in his first year back from surgery — and was so debilitated by the experience that he only lasted another 13 seasons (finally retiring at 46). You can argue that no one really knows what any pitcher’s limit is, that 160 innings is just the baseball version of an actuarial table. You can note that if Strasburg needed Tommy John surgery in 2010 and Zimmermann needed it in 2009, somebody else could very well need it in the future, so why not go for the gold this year, when all five starters are in reasonable running order?

You could even drag Lefty Grove into the discussion. Late in his career, when his Hall of Fame arm was nearing the end of its warranty, Grove was handed the ball basically once a week. In 1939, he started 23 games for the Red Sox, threw 191 innings, went 15-4 and led the league with a 2.54 ERA. Couldn’t a schedule like that work for Strasburg — that is, give him more time to recover between outings and enable him to pitch in the postseason?

Perhaps, but it’s thinking pretty far outside the box. And it doesn’t even consider how this reordering of the rotation might affect the rest of the staff (not to mention Stephen, who’s used to taking the mound every fifth day). Let’s face it, some things in 1939 are probably best left there.

Strasburg made his feelings known recently, in no uncertain terms, when he told a radio interviewer, “They’re going to have to rip the ball out of my hands.” If he’s still feeling strong in September — and the Nationals are closing in on a playoff berth — it could make for an interesting scene. The Nats don’t want to do anything to antagonize their big right-hander. Indeed, they want him to spend his entire career here. But if he strongly objects to being shut down, even if Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson are convinced it’s for his own good, could that damage the club’s relationship with him?

We shall see. Some will accuse the Nationals of being helicopter parents in their treatment of Strasburg, but what they’re really doing is erring on the side of caution — and hoping it leads to a championship banner or two. That’s patience for you. It ain’t always pretty. But it’s served the Nats well up to now.

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About the Author
Dan Daly

Dan Daly

Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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