Some people just don’t seem to fear the baseball gods. They thumb their noses at them, they ignore them, they pretend they simply don’t exist. This is 2012, after all, and such things are for small children and fools.
One of these unbelievers must be the Washington Nationals' General Manager Mike Rizzo. He not only incredibly shut down his best pitcher a few weeks before the playoffs, but allowed the even more unthinkable to happen: watching mascot Teddy Roosevelt win a between-inning race for the first time in 538 games on the last game of the 2012 season.
The first move had its merits. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' brilliant starter, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and was placed on a strict timeline for rehab. The decision was made to limit him to 170 innings in the 2012 season in order to preserve his young arm for the future.
Much has been made of this decision, heightened by the fact that early on in the season the Nationals established themselves as the best team in the National League and were clearly playoff bound. They were headed to the city’s first postseason appearance since 1933.
At this point the story got legs and everyone had an opinion on Washington going into the playoffs without their ace. Could they have handled Strasburg’s innings better? Should they have delayed his season start a month, spaced his starts out further or worked him out of the bullpen? But Rizzo stuck to the long-term plan and declared “We’ll be back, and doing this a couple more times.” Rizzo was referring to post-season play.
And as if to double-down while tempting fate, beleaguered mascot Teddy Roosevelt was given the green light to finally win the popular 4th inning mascot race for the first time… ever.
Yes, the Nationals were going to the playoffs and everyone was feeling pretty benevolent. As a lifelong Cubs fan I saw this for what it was: a blatant middle finger to the gods of baseball. We don’t need your karma. We are an enlightened franchise that keeps pitchers on timetables, regardless, always sticking to the plan. And, just to make the point clear: we let our loser mascot win for the first time on the last game of the season.
Does superstition have any place in baseball?
And on this note Washington boarded a plane for St. Louis and started the playoffs. They won Game 1 3-2 in front of the Cardinals' crowd, coming from behind and scoring two in the eighth to take the lead and hold. St. Louis came back and won the next two games.
Then there was the fantastic Game Four walk-off win for the Nats thanks to Jayson Werth’s 9th inning home run. The stage was set for Game 5.
Washington quickly came out with a strong 6-0 lead at home and things really looked good for the home team. But this was the Cardinals. They began chipping away with a run in the fourth, two in the fifth, one in the seventh, and one in the eighth.
Suddenly the score was within one run. But when Washington scored one more in the eighth for a little insurance the crowd seemed to relax a little. They were three outs away from advancing.
Carlos Beltran led off the top of the ninth with a double and went to third on a Matt Holliday ground out. Then Allen Craig struck out, putting the Nationals one out away. Yadier Molina walked. Then David Freese walked and the bases are now loaded. And then Daniel Descalso laced a ground ball up the middle. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond dove and the ball deflected off his glove, careening into short right field.
Two runs cross the plate and the game is now tied with runners on first and third. The Nationals allow Descalso to steal second and the next batter Pete Kozma hits a two run single to right field.
Washington went down in order in the bottom of the ninth and the series was over.
Can this collapse be blamed on a Strasburg shutdown? I really don’t think so. But I think anyone who is a fan of baseball certainly must attest to the game’s fickle, if not cruel nature. If that Descalso ball goes one more inch towards short Desmond has it for an easy force play at second. You can boil baseball down to all the sabermetrics you want, but things like this just can't be reasonable. And that's why I think you have to take your best shot when you can.
It certainly did not look like the Nationals planned on going to the playoffs this year or they certainly would have come up with a better plan for their best pitcher. Washington has a talented young team and maybe they will be back next year. But look at Texas. They went to two consecutive World Series and won neither. This year they were bounced in the wild card by Baltimore.
In basketball you can draft one player and almost guarantee yourself a playoff ticket. In football you have franchise tags for great players.
Baseball is nothing like this. Great players often play entire careers without a championship. And often great players like Strasburg end up on top paying teams.
You can try to run a baseball team with a business plan but it would be penny wise and pound foolish. Your franchise will be profitable with or without success. Even the San Diego Padres make money.
That’s the business level. But there’s another level. And that is the sport itself. That is competing and rewarding the fans who have been asked to pay for those luxury boxes, season tickets, and $200 jerseys.
I don't blame the end of the Nationals season on the shutdown of Strasburg but I do wonder if he preferred saving his arm for next year, or if he would rather play for a team that does everything it can do win.
In baseball, unlike basketball or football, and certainly unlike any other business, there is nothing even close to a guarantee. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. The closest thing would be the New York Yankees and their $200 million payroll. But how about Philadelphia?
And what more can be said about the meltdown in Boston with their $173 million payroll? And while we're talking about Boston, they once went 86 years in between World Series wins. The Cubs' drought is over a hundred years old. In baseball, when fate lines up for you, as it did for Washington this year, you take your best shot. Next year never goes according to plan.
And you never, ever break tradition on the last game of the season.