This was a heart-wrenching sight for Nationals fans last night.
How do you think it felt to be Stephen Strasburg, sitting in Nationals Park last night, knowing he could do nothing to help?
To see a team one strike away (twice) from advancing to the NLCS denied by a St. Louis Cardinals team that refuses to die?
To watch a starting pitching staff that was one of baseball's best all season implode in the playoffs? Sure, Ross Detwiler, who took Strasburg's spot in the rotation, did his job in Game 4, throwing six solid innings and only allowing three hits and one earned run.
That performance is all the more impressive given that it was an elimination game and the whispers of Strasburg's name were hanging all over the media, the fans and likely the team itself.
But other than Detwiler, simply put, the rest of the Nationals' rotation wasn't ready for primetime. Even Gio Gonzalez, who left with a lead last night, produced a pedestrian 4.50 ERA in his two starts.
Jordan Zimmerman was shellacked in three innings in his lone start, giving up five earned runs and seven hits. That was good for an inflated 11.25 ERA in the series.
Edwin Jackson was likewise unimpressive, lasting only five innings in his start and surrendering four earned runs. In relief last night, he walked two and gave up a crucial run in the seventh inning during the Cardinals' comeback. His ERA for the series was a less than sterling 7.20.
Simply put, the Nationals' starting pitching was not up to snuff in this series. You can argue all you want that Strasburg was not the ace of the staff, but now that the team has been eliminated, you have to wonder if things would've been different had he been available, even in a relief role.
The decision to sit Strasburg after some sort of arbitrary team-devised innings limit was controversial from the start. General manager Mike Rizzo defended the decision, and in the process, angered many opposing GM's with his logic.
"We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times," Rizzo said in defense of the decision. (via USA Today)
To many other teams, some of which have spent years without a winning season, much less a playoff appearance, this comes off as the height of hubris. After all, the Nationals franchise has been known in the past for many things, winning not being one of them.
To make an assumption like Rizzo has—and one which he continues to defend today—is a dangerous business in baseball. Success is fleeting, teams rise and fall faster than the stock market, and a playoff appearance one year is not a guarantee of anything beyond that one season.
Sports history is riddled with teams that were built for the long-haul and had one great season, never to be heard from again.
Baseball is a finicky game. Players get hurt, production from key guys drops, other teams improve, a bloop single this year is a pop fly next year, you lose a few one-run games that you won the year before, and suddenly you go from 98 wins and a division title to 88 wins and find yourself on the outside looking in.
In all sports, general managers need to try and strike a delicate balance between going all-in for a championship, and building for the future. Rizzo says his team is positioned well going forward and will make more, and presumably better, playoff runs in the future.
But that loses sight of the fact that the 2012 Nationals were not a team that surprised a lot of people by becoming overnight contenders. They weren't a Cinderella story like the Oakland Athletics, who came out of absolutely nowhere to contend and stunningly win their division.
The Oakland A's get credit for being there. The Washington Nationals won 98 regular season baseball games this year. Between that and their playoff series with the Cardinals, they walked off the field 100 times in victory this year. This wasn't a team lucky to be there.
This was a team that legitimately could take the field and have a real chance to win the World Series in 2012.
The fact that Rizzo can stand up there today given this reality, and the reality that his team should be making NLCS plans today instead of packing their stuff, is simply mind-blowing.
Rizzo today told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:
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. We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.
What is best for the Washington Nationals organization would be playing tomorrow night against the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. It's not filling a fanbase up with vague promises of continued postseason glory, at the expense of sacrificing a real, tangible chance at this year's World Series.
Do we know for a fact that Stephen Strasburg would've made the difference in the series had he pitched? Of course not. But we do know that you want to win and lose games with your best possible team on the field. And Mike Rizzo robbed his fans of that chance.