Did Shutting Down Stephen Strasburg Cost the Washington Nationals a Shot at the World Series?
The Washington Nationals, after winning 100 games and having the best record in baseball, have been vanquished by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the opening round of Major League Baseball’s maddening postseason. It’s deeply embittering, not least of all because it didn’t have to happen.
In our local DC newspapers, there’s always ample evidence of the arrogance of power backed by a compliant media. The sports section is hardly immune to this dynamic of the Beltway Bubble. When the Washington Nationals made the unprecedented and now clearly unconscionable decision to sit their ace Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs, there were howls of protest and derision: but almost all of them were from outside the DC, Maryland, Northern Virginia buffer zone. Inside the Beltway, the move was lauded as a master stroke.
Team general manager Mike Rizzo justified the the shutdown by saying that they were “saving” Strasburg because his All-Star arm had reached its inning limit. After all, argued Rizzo, the team would need Strasburg in top form for the playoff games in the future. As Rizzo said, in a quote that enraged opposing general managers and reverberated with anabolic hubris, “We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times.”
Imagine this being done in any other baseball town. In Boston, if the Red Sox had tried to shut down Curt Schilling in 2004, there would have been civil disobedience in front of Fenway Park.
But inside DC, great columnists like The Washington Post’s sage Thomas Boswell had nothing but aggressive contempt for those who objected to the shutdown. As the great baseball poet wrote on September 2, in now very unfortunate prose, “So all of the pundits who say the Nats can’t go to the series or even win it, just because they won’t have Strasburg, can kiss my press pass.”
To be clear, I had no problem with having a strict inning count for Strasburg and safeguarding his health. But why not sit him, as future hall of fame pitcher John Smoltz suggested, in July or August? Why not save him for when the team would need him most? The counter-argument that “you can’t shut down a pitcher and re-start him again” is more “baseball lore” than it is science. (Proof of that was seen in the Cardinals’ own old ace, the 38-year-old Chris Carpenter, shut down for much of the year, who returned to flummox the Nats in game three.)
I have no problem with caring about his health. I do have a problem with the Nats tanking this season out of arrogance and the media whipping a new, unsteady, colt-like baseball fan base into going along with the ride.
The baseball post-season can be an unpredictable, mind-bending experience where, as the Nationals found out, having the opposition down to its last out or even last strike doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a time when leaving a team—especially a veteran, resourceful team like the Cardinals—even a pinhole of oxygen can lead to a cascade of horror. The only truism in post-season baseball is that an ace pitcher, like some kind of Gandalfian wizard, can conquer all the dark magic the postseason can conjure. We saw this in Detroit series where defending Tigers Cy Young winner Justin Verlander shut out the pixie-dusted Oakland Athletics in their decisive Game 5. It happened in New York, where the great C.C. Sabathia broke the will and the bats of the fairy-tale Baltimore Orioles in their Game 5. Stephen Strasburg is DC’s Verlander, DC’s Sabathia. His moment was Game 5. Mike Rizzo took that away from this fan base. He took it away from a city that had poured $1 billion in public money into Nationals Park. He took it away from a team that showed all season that this could have been their year.
Rizzo, Boswell and all those who defended this decision should have the courage and the sense of shame to say that they were dead wrong. The true legacy of the Strasburg shutdown was shutting down an unforgettably beautiful season, leaving a legacy that tastes worse than chewing on dry aspirin. The arrogance of management and an unquestioning local media: it will get you every time.