The Washington Nationals entered play on Monday with a 6.5-game lead in the NL East standings.
Come mid-September, they will likely start putting plans together to set their rotation favorably for the NL Division Series. And those plans won’t include their ace.
Nats manager Davey Johnson announced this past weekend that Stephen Strasburg will make just two more starts this season, with his final appearance on Sept. 12 against the New York Mets.
Johnson is following through on general manager Mike Rizzo‘s opinion that Strasburg pitch between 160 and 180 innings this season. It’s Strasburg’s first full season back after Tommy John surgery sidelined him for almost all of last season.
Strasburg has been nothing short of dominating, posting a 2.94 ERA in 156 1/3 innings, striking out 195. Opponents are hitting just .225 off of him.
The Nats are pitching deep like no other team in baseball. Their 477 runs allowed are by far the fewest given up in the NL. However, there really is no replacing a guy like Strasburg.
I’m left asking myself: How can this happen? As former NY Jets coach Herm Edwards reminded us so many years ago, you PLAY to WIN the GAME! Yet the Nats, by benching Strasburg for the postseason, seem content in just getting to the playoffs rather than trying to do something when they get there.
A playoff appearance alone would be considered a huge milestone for a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason since 1981 when – as the Montreal Expos – they reached the NLCS.
But how many opportunities does a team get like this to win a World Series? And the Nats with their pitching would be among the favorites. No team would want to face a Strasburg-Jordan Zimmermann-Gio Gonzalez-Edwin Jackson staff.
I have no problem with the innings limit for Strasburg. There seems to be little evidence that an innings limit benefits his long-term health, but I realize that the environment in Major League Baseball thinks that it does, and Rizzo would be under intense scrutiny if something happened to Strasburg.
And Strasburg is a valuable investment that must be protected.
But the Nats seemed all season long to be ill-prepared for the innings limit, almost as if they just decided to hold firm on it two months ago.
You can’t shut Strasburg down now, then re-start him for the postseason. That seems like a terrible idea.
But why wasn’t his turn in the rotation being skipped in the early and middle parts of the season, allowing him to extend his season into October? That’s what I don’t understand.
It’s not like the Nats had a late-season rally to get into first place. They’ve been there almost all season. October baseball has been within reach for them since April, yet it’s like the organization itself never believed it was actually attainable until recently.
The Nationals have a chance to do something really special, and bring Washington its first World Series title since 1924. Those hopes take a hit without Strasburg, but it really should have never come to this.