MLB Playoffs 2012: The Washington Nationals Needed Stephen Strasburg

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MLB Playoffs 2012: The Washington Nationals Needed Stephen Strasburg
Rob Carr/Getty Images
All Strasburg could do during the Nationals October games was spectate.

You’d be mistaken to think the Washington Nationals lost the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals in the MLB Playoffs 2012 last week on October 12. They actually lost this series a little more than a month earlier on September 8.

Saturday, September 8, 2012 will forever be known as Shutdown Day for Stephen Strasburg. That morning, after a subpar outing against the Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson told Stephen that his year was done, effectively killing any chances of an MLB Playoffs 2012 run.

It was a plan the Nationals had derived back in February while Strasburg was just beginning to recover from Tommy John surgery. As GM Mike Rizzo told ESPN’s "Outside The Lines," “We want to do what's best for Stephen in the long run. So we're going to let him pitch on a regular routine, get him to an innings limit that he's comfortable throwing and then shut him down, and ramp him back up in spring training to take us to the next level."

But it was hitched when they were coming off an 80-81 season, a season in which they had shut down fellow Nationals starter Jordan Zimmerman for the same reason. When you reach that "next level" by finishing with the best record in the baseball, like the Nats did in 2012, you need your best pitcher in October.

The Washington Nationals’ starting staff combined for 72 wins, a 3.40 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 855 strikeouts in 953 innings pitched. Their MLB rankings for each of these stats were first (tied), second, second and sixth. These are the numbers of an utterly dominant staff. The Nationals leaned on their three big aces of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and the aforementioned Zimmerman. Every time one of these guys took the mound, the Nationals had a good shot at winning.

Strasburg himself finished 15-6, with a 3.16 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and 197 strikeouts in 28 starts and 159.1 innings. But these numbers are irrelevant come October. And the Nationals made themselves go into the MLB 2012 Playoffs with one arm tied behind their backs.

Should the Nationals have kept Stephen Strasburg fresh for October and gone over the 160 IP limit they set?

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No one wants to see a hurt Stephen Strasburg. Ultimately, this decision is supposed to help curb any future injuries and stress on Strasburg’s surgically repaired elbow. But can you guarantee that by shutting Stephen down at 160 innings pitched that he will never have another throwing-related injury in his career? That answer is no because there is no evidence that supports it.

And when you are in a pennant race like the Nationals were, you have to come up with ways to extend the season of your most talented pitcher. Have him skip a few starts come September, use him out of the bullpen a little, then have him start one game in the playoffs and be available in relief for the rest of the series. Because, as Rany Jazayerli wrote in "A National Mistake" on Grantland

The point of having a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg is to help you win a championship. Preventing Strasburg from helping you win a title this year — so that he might be more likely to help you win a title in the future — is causing certain harm to your team in the present for a theoretical benefit in the future. That is, in a word, dumb.

Every kid who picks up a ball or bat dreams of winning the World Series. How can an organization take that chance away from Strasburg and his teammates? Strasburg obviously wasn’t happy about the decision either, as he told ESPN, "I don't know if I'm ever gonna accept it to be honest. It's something that I'm not happy about at all. That's not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win.”

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Drew Storen, mid-collapse.

Sure, hindsight is always 20/20. But when your best pitcher is sitting on the bench but able to pitch during those atrocious Game 2 and Game 3 starts from pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and, more specifically, Edwin Jackson, well, you gotta wonder how having Strasburg pitch one of those games would’ve changed outcomes. Of course GM Mike Rizzo is going to stick by his decision despite the Nationals' being knocked out of the MLB Playoffs 2012. But was it a little presumptive of him to say this team will be good for years? 

There are several glaring questions that do not solidify the Nationals being a winner for years to come:

  • first baseman Adam LaRoche's being a free agent
  • 69-year-old manager Davey Johnson’s contract being up
  • closer Drew Storen’s meltdown and his ability to put it behind him
  • Gio Gonzalez’s ability to repeat an elite season
  • the NL East's likely becoming more competitive than it was this year
  • Strasburg’s frustration with the decision and possibly the Nationals

ESPN analyst and former MLB pitcher Orel Hershiser told colleague Jayson Stark, "I had to have reconstructive surgery because I pitched 260 innings in 1988, but I've always said, 'Would I give back the 55 scoreless [innings] and winning the World Series so I could have a longer career?' No way."

Winning a World Series is why Major League Baseball exists. The Washington Nationals had a legitimate shot to do that this year, and it something they deserved a true shot at attaining. Their early exit from the MLB Playoffs 2012, which was determined for them in September, could have and should have been avoided by keeping Strasburg fresh for October.

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